He had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old when he confessed to seven crimes, six murders, and one rape, none of which he committed. Jerry Frank Townsend is developmentally challenged and spent 21.5 years of his life in prison due to a false confession.
Knowing the consequences of confessing to a crime, incarceration and even capital punishment, makes it quite difficult to understand why anyone would confess to a crime they did not commit. However, false confessions are not uncommon.
”Approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence involved defendants who made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.” – The Innocence Project
Professors Steve Drizen, professor at Northwestern Law School, and Richard Leo, professor at the University of San Francisco, have documented 125 false confessions between 1971 and 2002. Two-thirds of these confessions were detected before making it to trial, but 44 resulted in innocent people serving prison time for more than ten years each.
False confessions can occur for many reasons; however, the majority derives from similar origins.
Old Habits Die Hard
In 1934 three men—Henry Shield, Yank Ellington, and Ed Brown—were accused of killing a farmer, Raymond Stewart. Police arrested Ellington and beat him until he confessed to the murder. Later they arrested Shield and Brown who were beaten with buckled leather belts until they too confessed.
Besides the confession, police had no other evidence to link the three men to the crime. The confessions were, however, enough to garner a conviction. The confessions were, of course, false, and the three men only admitted to guilt to end the torture.
In 1936 the Supreme Court ruled that convictions solely based on confessions obtained through brutality and violence were void under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. This ruling allowed Shield, Ellington, and Brown’s convictions to be overturned, and set precedent for similar cases.
However, this ruling didn’t stop torture from occurring. From 1973 to 1991 disgraced Chicago Commander, Jon Burge, allegedly tortured 108 men. His alleged methods ranged from placing plastic bags over suspects heads, cigarette burnings, to electro-shock. He was later fired from his position and convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Because physical abuse is illegal, police have turned to new methods ranging from psychological abuse to trickery.
On April 19, 1989, Trisha Meili was raped and left for dead in Central Park. Five teenagers, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise, were convicted of the crime. All five boys confessed to raping the 28-year-old, but plead not guilty, stating police “put words” in their mouth and coerced confessions. The boys were all found guilty.
In 2002 the boys, now men, convictions were vacated.
Matias Reyes, a man serving a life sentence for another crime, confessed to the rape. Along with his detailed confession, DNA evidence placed Reyes at the scene of the crime. After re-investigating the case, it was found that Reyes was a suspect during the initial investigation, but the boys’ confessions sealed their fate.
Why would five boys confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Simple. They were coerced and physiologically abused. They were questioned multiple times for extended periods of times, each lasting several hours. The boys received no food, sleep, or bathroom breaks. Some were even told that if they confessed they could go home. These questioning practices are both unethical and inhumane. The most frightening part is if Reyes never confessed, all five men might still be incarcerated.
Trickery Questioning Methods include (not limited to):
Maximization: Interrogators will exaggerate the truth in hopes of gaining a confession. For example an officers may state they have fingerprints or witnesses that place the suspect at the scene of the crime. In some cases, officers tell suspects that they have failed lie detector tests when they haven’t, in order get a confession.
Minimization: Officers will downplay the seriousness of the crime so that the suspects believe they are less likely to get in trouble if they confess. Interrogators tell suspects that if they tell the “truth,” they can help them or that confessing will allow them to walk free.
The Innocence Project (New York) suggests that all police departments electronically record interrogations from the reading of Miranda Rights and forward. Recording interrogations can benefit both law enforcement agencies and suspects/defendants. It provides both sides with an objective view of what occurred during an interrogation without any biased interpretations.
Some critics fear that this practice isn’t enough, because parts of a recording can be erased or tampered with. However this is best method available. So far, ten states have mandated the recording of interrogations, and more will soon follow. Hopefully, Florida will be among them.