In the previous posts in this False Confessions series, we discussed the causes that lead to an innocent person giving a false confession. We broke down what kind of tactics used and errors made by interrogators can lead to falsifying a confession and what certain groups can be the most vulnerable to these. What we have not really delved into, however, is what the consequences of this are. The obvious answer, of course, is that a false confession will likely result in a wrongful conviction. But, the consequences of a false confession can persist even after the exoneration of an innocent person. We will discuss these consequences in this post.
A confession is the most powerful piece of evidence that can come before a court. Social science has shown us that confessions are extremely persuasive to a jury. Confessions are especially persuasive when they include descriptive details of the crime. As was discussed in the last post in this series, confessions can also be infected by leading questions or even insertions of information that make the confession even more convincing and believable. Social scientists can present in court the research behind how often and why false confessions may occur. The defense can use these social scientists to try to lessen the powerful persuasive effect of a defendants false confession. But, it is hard to take the images out of a jury’s head of the defendant sitting in front of them saying in their own words that they are guilty. This is why, as stated earlier, false confessions will likely result in a wrongful conviction.
What is even worse, false confession can still follow an innocent person even after they have been exonerated and have had their innocence (supposedly) earned back. When someone has given a false confession of guilt, or even worse entered a guilty plea, when they are innocent, that can threaten their right to monetary compensation for their suffering. An example of this can come from the 2004 Supreme Court Case of Taylor v. Smith. Lola Ann Taylor falsely confessed to rape and murder, along with five others, of Helen Wilson. Taylor gave this false confession after repeated interrogations, including being interrogated by her former psychologist Dr. Wayne Price. When Taylor was exonerated by DNA evidence she had to fight for her compensation under the Nebraska Wrongful Conviction Act. This is because it stipulates that the complainant must be innocent of the crimes as well as have not made a false statement that brought about their conviction, unless that statement was coerced by law enforcement. Taylor had to prove to the court that she was psychologically coerced and did not intentionally give false statements.
Lola Ann Taylor was fortunate to have won her case and be granted her compensation, although some might say she should not have been put through all of that when she was innocent, but some exonerees are not this fortunate. Some exonerees are denied their compensation because of their false confessions, despite the fact that they were coerced, psychologically manipulated, and suffered the same amount as a result of the same failures of the criminal justice system. To deny an innocent person compensation for their time spent suffering behind bars because of a crime that they never committed is unjust, false confession or not.
To wrap up this series on wrongful convictions, there are a number of ways that future damages can be avoided by preventing false confessions from happening in the future. A major solution that we have discussed here before is video taping the interrogation. With a taped confession, investigators can view what lead to the confession and where the details of the confession might have come from. The tapes of these confessions can also be used in court by the defense to delegitimize the confession. However, this is not a full solution. The taping of confessions can be manipulated by using deceptive camera angles or not taping prior interrogation sessions that may be relevant. Also, the taping of a false confession does not catch the suspects whole life on camera, meaning that it would not capture events prior to the interrogation that might effect their mental health or current mental state.
Another method that has been promoted by the Nebraska Innocence Project is not allowing investigators to threaten suspects with the death penalty. The threat of execution can result in an innocent suspect giving a false confession in exchange for a lesser sentence. When presented with the threat of death, the influence to lie to avoid this is too strong to yield a just and truthful confession.
When it comes to false confessions, the consequences are clearly damaging and long-lasting. A false confession and thus wrongful conviction is a loss and an injustice for everyone involved. Not only will an innocent person have a piece of their life stolen, but the police will have failed their mission and failed the victims by leaving the true assailant on the streets.