False confessions induced by interrogators are among the leading causes of wrongful imprisonment in the United States, research shows. During hours-long, emotionally stressful interrogations, authorities have coerced, intentionally or not, innocent people to admit to crimes.
“Many who confess do so in short interrogations,” University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett writes in his book, “Convicting the Innocent.”
“In contrast, almost all of these [false confession] interrogations were prolonged affairs, lasting many hours or even days.”
Law enforcement errors that lead to false confessions include relentlessly pursuing a suspect as guilty without proper evidence, coercing a suspect to confess under immense pressure and contaminating a suspect’s perspective by feeding him or her facts about the crime that only the actual perpetrator would know.
Such tactics can cause an innocent suspect to admit to a crime in order to escape the long, harsh interrogation process, according to a 2009 white paper on police-coerced confessions. At times, innocent suspects’ respect for law enforcement has led to their belief in the authority’s narrative, whether or not it is factual.
Out of 40 overturned cases based on false confessions researched by Garett, “14 of these exonerees were mentally retarded, three were mentally ill, and 13 were juveniles,” raising concerns about the suspects’ weakness during questioning.
“Police coercion may have an even more powerful effect on certain vulnerable populations like juveniles, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and other suspects that are suggestible or compliant,” Steven Drizin, legal director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School who worked on the white paper, told Al Jazeera.
In many cases, interrogations during which false confessions were extracted were not recorded or only partially recorded, preventing a judge or jury from understanding how an innocent suspect could describe in a confession details of a crime not yet made public.
The courts, Drizin suggested, “need to be able to see the entire interrogation process.” Only about 20 states require interrogations to be electronically recorded in their entirety.
“I think that courts need to be clearer with regard to what is and is not an acceptable level of coercion,” Drizin added. “Without clear guidelines, law enforcement officers continue to push the envelope in interrogations.”
Law requires that a confession from a suspect must to be corroborated by independent evidence. But Drizin notes, “Jurors still find that confession evidence is as persuasive as or even more persuasive than DNA evidence.”
Advocates argue that until law enforcement is held accountable, false confessions will continue.
“The only way law enforcement has been penalized, is after the fact, in civil suits filed by the exonerated,” Drizin said.
In January, New York State settled a wrongful conviction case with defendant Marty Tankleff for more than $3 million. Tankleff, who served 17 years in prison for the murder of his parents, was found guilty based on a false confession he gave after law enforcement lied about a statement from his unconscious father (who died shortly after).
But even though New York settled, the police officers and prosecutors responsible for coercing Tankleff were not penalized.
“The officers who obtained false confessions end up being promoted through the ranks, because false confessions increase clearance rates and convictions rates,” Drizin said.