Posts Tagged ‘False Confessions’


False Confessions: What are the Consequences?

Taylor Thornton — April 13, 2018 @ 3:04 PM — Comments (0)

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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.

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False Confessions: Who is Most Vulnerable?

Taylor Thornton — February 26, 2018 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

It is hard for most people to wrap their mind around why anyone would ever confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. It seems impossible to the average person to imagine themselves ever doing such a thing. Yet, a quarter of those exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of a crime gave some sort of confession. This shocking statistic begs the obvious question: why would someone ever confess when they are innocent? In this series of posts on false confessions, we will look at the circumstances that lead to a false confession and the powerful consequences they can have.

While anyone can find themselves in this situation, there are a number of factors that make individuals more likely to give a false confession. People vary in their ability to withstand the psychological pressures of interrogation. One of these factors is age. Social scientists have found that juveniles are overrepresented when examining the demographics of exonerees that once gave confessions. Juveniles are two to three times more likely to give false confessions than adults. They are often more susceptible to the pressures of coercion involved in police interrogation tactics. It is also likely that juveniles do not often fully understand the serious long-term consequences of giving that false confession. It may not to be clear to them that they will not be returning home to their families or going back to school the following day after giving these confessions.

The harsh psychological tactics that police officers use to yield confessions, isolation, the promises of help and leniency in return for a confession, and the relentless insistence that the accused is lying to them, are simply intended for adult criminals. It is a fact that juveniles’ minds are not fully developed yet. Particularly, the prefrontal cortex, notably responsible for problem-solving and decision making, is not fully developed until their early twenties. Meaning that, juveniles are often impulsive, lacking in reason and decision-making abilities, and most importantly they are motivated by short-term rewards. This makes it quite obvious why juveniles will confess to a crime they did not commit so that they can just go home like the detective makes them believe that they will, rather than weighing the long-term consequences of this short-term release from the pressure and stress of interrogation.

Another population that finds themselves just as vulnerable as juveniles are those with intellectual disabilities. For obvious reasons, people with mental handicaps often lack proper judgement, the ability to reason and make decisions, and the ability to understand the powerful implications of a false confession. They are susceptible to the pressures of interrogations in a similar way to juveniles as they can lack intellectual capabilities in similar areas. Additionally, however, social scientists have concluded that those with intellectual disabilities also have a high need for approval, and therefore often seek to give people what they want. This need is heightened in the presence of an authority figure. Because of their desire to please they are much more likely to submit to the demands of others and give the authority figure what they want.

Finally, they simply lack the same ability to cope with high levels of stress that others possess. Those with intellectual disabilities tend to find even regular levels of stress to be overwhelming and a police interrogation is extremely stressful for anyone. They tend to want to avoid conflict and are much more likely to just comply with the requests of the interrogators, even if that means giving a false confession, so that they can end the situation sooner.

One last population that is highly susceptible to the pressures of police interrogations is the mentally ill. The baseline for a coerced confession in people who are mentally ill is much lower than for other people. They may lack social skills such as assertiveness, the ability of executive functioning, have high anxiety, and lack the ability to separate reality from fantasy. What might not even seem like coercion to others, can serve to coerce a confession from someone who is mentally ill because they tend to be much more susceptible to the slightest amount of pressure. Thus, like the other populations that we discussed, the mentally ill are much more vulnerable to making false confessions and not understanding the consequences of making these confessions.

While these special populations do not necessarily make up the majority of false confessions, it is important to understand how they may be unfairly affected by interrogation tactics used by police. It is often the detectives only goal to yield some sort of confession. However, a false confession is the opposite of justice, it traps the innocent in the justice system and leaves the true guilty party on the streets. It is vital for police to have an understanding of who they are questioning and what kind of deficits the suspect may have that would bar them from responding in a regular way under the pressure of an interrogation.

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2015: A Record-Setting Year in the World of Wrongful Conviction

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 08, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (2)

Every year, the National Registry of Exonerations releases an annual report on all the exonerations that occurred that year. The report lists the total number of exonerations for that year and also provides details about those exonerations such as what crimes occurred and what caused the wrongful convictions. As of January 27, 2016, the Registry has recorded a total of 1,733 exonerations in the United States since 1989. Exonerations are now common, averaging at about 3 exonerations per week. The Registry released their exoneration report for 2015 on February 3, 2016, and the report shows that several records related to wrongful conviction were broken last year.

There were 149 exonerations in 2015, which is more than any other year. The previous record was 139 exonerations in 2014. Of the 149 exonerations last year, exonerees spent an average of 14.5 years in prison. The majority of exonerations were for violent crimes—39% were homicide and ten percent were adult and child sexual assault. The exonerations that were for non-violent crimes were mostly drug possession and distribution cases. The exonerations took place in 29 states and Washington, D.C, along with three exonerations in federal cases and one in Guam. Texas had the most number of exonerations with 54, followed by New York with 17 and Illinois with 13. Florida had the tenth highest number of exonerations in the country with three.

Another record was broken in regards to homicide cases, which were responsible for the largest number of exonerations last year—58 to be exact, which is more than any other year. These exonerations took place in 25 states and 54 were for murder and four were for manslaughter. The largest percentage of homicide exonerees were African American at 49%, followed by Caucasian at 32%, then Hispanic at 11%, and other at nine percent. Of the 58 total homicide exonerees, 55 were men and three were women, ranging in age from 14 to 54. Eight of them were under 18 years old, and 23 were under 20 years old. Homicide exonerees spent an average of 18 years in prison, and all together spent 696 years in prison. Five of them were sentenced to death, 14 received life without the possibility of parole, five received life with the possibility of parole, and the rest were sentenced to decades in prison.

Drug cases also broke a record, in which 47 people were exonerated for drug possession. Of those 47 exonerees, 42 of them had pled guilty in Harris County, Texas alone. The exonerees may have pled guilty for several reasons, such as because they thought the drugs found on them contained illegal substances even though they actually did not or because they had previous criminal records and could not afford to hire a decent attorney or go to trial even though they were innocent. Many times, people were arrested on the error of police officers that may have identified something as a drug when it actually was not; for example misidentifying over-the-counter medication as prescription pills. Errors can also occur when officers perform field tests that are used to identify controlled substances because these tests are often unreliable, sometimes even mistaking candy for drugs. Drug case exonerees received sentences ranging from community service to two years in jail.

Records were also set last year in regards to how wrongful convictions occurred in the first place. False confessions were responsible for a record 27 exonerations. Of those 27 exonerations, 22 were homicide cases in which most defendants were under the age of 18, mentally handicapped, or both. Among death sentences in the United States, the rate of false confessions is about four percent. Official misconduct was involved in a record total of 65 cases, and in three quarters of homicide cases. Guilty pleas were responsible in another record total of 65 cases. The majority, or 46, of guilty pleas were in drug cases, and a record number of eight were in homicide cases, which all involved false confessions.

Some exonerations occurred because it was found that no crimes actually occurred. No-crime cases were involved in a record number of 75 of 2015’s exonerations, 48 of which were drug cases, six of which were murder convictions—yet another record—and 14 of which were for other violent felonies.

DNA evidence was wholly or partially responsible for 26 exonerations—17% of the 149 total exonerations last year. Of all exonerations recorded by the Registry, DNA exonerations are involved in 24% of them.

2015 was also a big year for Conviction Integrity Units (CIU). These units are branches of prosecutorial offices that focus on preventing, identifying, and reversing wrongful convictions. CIUs were involved in 152 exonerations overall between 2003 and 2015, including a record-breaking number of 58 last year and one so far in 2016. Almost three quarters, or 109, of the 152 CIU exonerations occurred in 2014 and 2015. In addition, almost half took place in Harris County, Texas thanks to their CIU.

While exonerations may now be considered commonplace, the work to free the wrongfully convicted continues.

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The Science Behind False Confessions and the Cases Involved with Them

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 21, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

The concept of false confessions is a difficult one to grasp. It seems almost impossible to believe that someone would confess to a crime they did not commit. However, according to science and research, it is actually very possible and once explained, easy to understand why someone may give a false confession.

According to a study performed in 2013, innocent people experience initial physiological differences than guilty people when it comes to being accused of a crime. People who are innocent experience less stress when being questioned because they know they are innocent. This lack of stress can make them feel as though they are not at risk, and therefore do not need to protect themselves. For example, they may not invoke their rights, such as their rights to silence and counsel. In addition, research shows people can even create false memories and visualize themselves engaging in criminal activity.

In another study published in 2015, forensic psychologists interrogated college-aged students. After spending three hours misinforming and encouraging the participants that they had committed a crime, researchers were able to convince 70 percent of them that they had actually done it. Not only did participants confess to the crimes, they also recalled details about what they did. Another forensic psychologist compared false memories to a Wikipedia page, susceptible to editing by other people. She explained that once people are convinced something is true, their imagination takes over and they start to visualize a situation using their own or others’ past experiences, perhaps even drawing from movies. One can no longer distinguish between what is true or false once memories have been put together and internalized.

These findings are supported by statistics. In a report published by the National Registry of Exonerations, the leading cause of false homicide convictions of individuals then exonerated in 2013 were perjury or false accusations, the majority of which were deliberate. Official misconduct was also named as an issue. The report also shows that 74 percent of all homicide cases in the Registry’s database were related to false confessions.

Statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations also show that youth are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit. For crimes allegedly committed by people under 18 years of age, 38 percent of exonerations in the last few decades dealt with false confessions. This correlates with the 2015 study performed on college-aged students.

Last year was no different—false confessions continued to be an issue. In fact, false confessions were involved in almost a fifth of all exonerations in 2015. Steve Drizin, a clinical law professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, wrote an article for the Huffington Post in December, detailing some of the biggest false confession cases for each month in 2015. Perhaps the most astounding of these cases are those of Sharrif Wilson and Daniel Gristwood, Melissa Calusinski, Davontae Sanford, and Corey Williams

Sharrif Wilson and Daniel Gristwood died in January of 2015. Both men falsely confessed to crimes and were exonerated in New York. Wilson was 38 years old and spent 21 years in prison. When he was arrested at the age of 15 he was a healthy young boy, but when he left prison he was obese and suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome. Wilson had only been out of prison for less than a year. Gristwood was 48 years old and spent 9 years in prison. Only four months after receiving compensation for his wrongful conviction, he died of lung cancer.

In February, Blaming Melissa aired on CBS’s 48 Hours. The episode questions whether Melissa Calusinski, a former daycare worker in Lake County, Illinois, falsely confessed to the murder of one of the children in her care. Kathleen Zellner, who recently agreed to represent Steven Avery from Making a Murderer, is Calusinski’s attorney. The case gained popularity when newly discovered x-rays showing that the child had a pre-existing head injury surfaced, leading the county’s coroner to change the cause of death from homicide to undetermined. However, Calusinski still remains behind bars.

In April, a petition for a new trial was filed in the case of Davontae Sanford. His attorneys from Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School—which also helped create the National Registry of Exonerations—and Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, filed the petition based on actual innocence. Sanford confessed and pled guilty in 2007 to a quadruple murder at a Detroit drug house. He was only 14 at the time. Vincent Smothers, a known hit man who confessed and pled guilty to at least eight murders, also confessed to the quadruple drug house murder. Despite Smothers’ confession, Sanford remains in prison.

In December, lawyers representing Corey Williams discovered exculpatory evidence that was not disclosed to the defense. Williams was convicted for the 1998 murder of a Shreveport, Louisiana pizza deliveryman. Not only was he 16 at the time, but he is also intellectually disabled. Information included in police reports suggested that three other boys who were present during the crime were thought to have tried to pin it on Williams. However, Williams confessed to the murder and was placed on death row. He was later given life without parole because of his status as a juvenile, but he still remains in Angola, a notorious maximum-security prison.

Hopefully 2016 will prove to be a better year, with fewer miscarriages of justice and more exonerations of innocent people who were wrongfully imprisoned.

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More Than a Mistake: The Manipulation Inherent in False Confessions

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 27, 2015 @ 10:22 AM — Comments (1)

It is difficult to learn that people are convicted for crimes they did not commit. Accepting the existence of wrongful convictions means facing the fact that America’s criminal justice system is not infallible. But we must acknowledge that while our legal system portrays itself as only punishing those who are guilty, there are many weak areas where the innocent can mistakenly slip through the cracks. For example, it is extremely common for eyewitnesses to inadvertently identify an innocent person, as did Jennifer Thompson when she wrongly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her. The jury, strongly influenced by the eyewitness testimony, thus convicts the innocent man. In such a case, neither the jury nor the eyewitness intends to be unjust; they mistakenly believe that they have correctly identified the criminal.

Unfortunately, there are also instances where wrongful convictions are more than a mistake. While some wrongful convictions can be at least partially explained away by human error, other cases show signs of outright manipulation. A strong indicator that some sort of deception or coercion was inherent in the wrongful conviction is the existence of a false confession.

Police interrogations are a common source of manipulation leading to false confessions. In a recent study, psychologists Stephen Porter and Julia Shaw found that not only is it surprisingly easy to create false memories of committing crime, but also that many of the methods that lead to the creation of these false memories are commonly employed in police interrogations as part of the Reid technique. For example, interrogations following the Reid technique are designed to be accusatory and to elicit a confession from the suspect, and often make use of false evidence and social pressures. All of these methods were employed by Porter and Shaw in their study, and contributed to the creation of the participants’ false memories. In other words, police interrogations are not always intended to correctly identify the culprit; rather, the police often assume that the suspect is guilty and do whatever it takes to force a confession out of him or her, including manipulating the suspect’s memory and producing a false confession.

Eddie Joe Lloyd’s case provides an even more straightforwardly deceitful example of how police interrogations can lead to false confessions. Police convinced the mentally ill Lloyd that by incriminating himself in the 1984 murder of a 16-year-old girl, he would influence the real culprit to confess and thus be helping the police solve a crime. Of course, police instead used his confession to implicate Lloyd himself, and he was sentenced to life in prison, which he served until being exonerated with DNA evidence in 2002. It’s clear, then, that the manipulation involved in police interrogations is not harmless. Confessions are extremely powerful evidence that often lead to conviction, and police who use these sorts of coercive strategies to encourage suspects to falsely confess are a major player in wrongful convictions.

Police are not the only ones guilty of manipulative techniques, however. Prosecutors also play a role in encouraging false confessions through the practice of plea bargaining. Judge Jed S. Rakoff has written an informative article about how prosecutor’s offers of a plea bargain can lead innocent people to plead guilty. While it may seem like plea bargains actually offer defendants a good deal, for example, serving life in prison instead of being charged with the death penalty if they simply plead guilty to the crime without a trial, we must remember that these bargains can be a deal with the devil. If an innocent person has been so far implicated in a crime that he or she is forced to go to court, he or she may believe there is no possibility of being proved innocent, and will instead resort to taking whatever scraps the prosecutor throws at them in the form of a plea bargain. The innocent person is then stuck with a charge and prison time, and faces the obstacle of going against his own confession if he ever wants to prove himself innocent. Rakoff notes that an estimated 2 to 8 percent of convicted felons are actually innocent and plead guilty to avoid harsher sentences, and that 10 percent of the Innocence Project’s exonerations had previously plead guilty to their charge. Plea bargains can certainly be a temptation that is hard to avoid.

Too many innocent people are being manipulated to falsely confess and subsequently convicted based on these false confessions. The fact that players in the criminal justice system are actually working in ways to encourage these false confessions is an unfortunate truth that must be recognized in the fight against wrongful convictions.

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News Roundup From Around The Nation 7/11/14

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 11, 2014 @ 6:00 PM — Comments (0)

In this week’s news roundup we are happy to report stories of resilience, redemption, and rebuilding.

  • Resilience: (San Antonio, TX) Sonia Cacy spent just 5 years of her 99 year sentence in prison before she was paroled in 1999. However, the fact that she was released early did not satisfy Cacy. She was determined to be officially exonerated of her crime, which she has always maintained she did not commit. Since the day of her release, she has fought to have justice restored to her life and to be compensated for the years stolen from her. Convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle at the small house they shared in Fort Stockton, she was given 99 years in prison. However, the case against her was primarily the product of an inaccurate reading of an evidence test and the outdated arson investigation techniques of that time. Now, with the several experts refuting the original test reading and the great improvements in arson science, it has become clear that the case against her is one which is weak.  Her case is currently being heard by Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio, who will not rule on the case for a few months, attorneys said. Richardson could recommend that Cacy’s conviction be overturned, though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would make any final determination on her case
  • Redemption: (Lowell, MA) For the 32 years Victor Rosario has been behind bars, the entirety of which he steadfastly denied setting the 1982 Lowell fire that killed eight people, five of them children. Rosario, 57, was convicted in 1983 after confessing that he and two other men had used Molotov cocktails to set the fire, the deadliest in Lowell’s history. However, changes in how fire investigators determine arson, as well as the fact that Rosario’s confession is now thought to have been coerced, has cast serious doubts about the legitimacy of his conviction. While 32 years in prison had certainly taken a toll on Rosario, he never stopped fighting for his innocence. Therefore, it was an incredible relief when Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman overturned the murder convictions last Monday, ruling that new evidence cast “real doubt on the justice of the conviction.” The next day Rosario posted his $25,000 bail and was finally able to walk out of prison as a free man. His battle may not be over, as the D.A.’s office plans to retry Rosario, but at this moment in his life; justice has prevailed.
  • Rebuilding: 25 years is an extremely long amount of time in any person’s life. However, those years must feel even longer when they are spent imprisoned for a crime you did not commit. Sadly, that is the reality in Michael Morton’s life. After being wrongly convicted of the murder of his beloved wife, he spent 25 years in prison (separated from his young son) before justice finally prevailed. Today, he is trying to rebuild his life and further the cause of the wrongfully convicted with his new book: “Getting Life”. His book recounts the tragic events in his life and how he dealt with the horrible burden of false imprisonment. The book has just hit shelves and can be found on Amazon.com and many other book retailers.

 

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The Central Park 5: The Truth Concerning Confessions

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 30, 2014 @ 2:39 PM — Comments (0)

On the night of April 19, 1989 a vicious and horrifying crime was perpetrated in Central Park New York. On that night 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili (who has publicly released her identity) was violently assaulted and raped while jogging in the park. She was raped and beaten almost to the point of death. When found, about four hours later at 1:30 am, she was suffering from severe hypothermia and blood loss from multiple lacerations and internal bleeding, and her skull had been fractured so badly that her left eye was removed from the socket. This crime came at a time when crime rates in New York were at an all-time high and race relations were at a low point. The rape of an affluent white woman, in an area that had been reporting a crime spree by minority youths, was enough to set the city afire with outrage. There were calls for immediate justice coming from all levels of the political and social sphere; the NYPD could feel the fire building under their feet. They immediately threw their investigation into full throttle. In a short time they had rounded up a very convincing group of suspects. This group consisted of 5 Black and Hispanic youths who admitted to being in the park that evening engaging in (various forms of) criminal mischief of a far lesser severity. They ranged in age from 14-16. They confessed to the rape and assault of the jogger. By December 1990, all of the 5 young men were convicted of charges related to the rape. They would proceed to spend a combined 40 years in prison.  All convictions were affirmed on appeal.

On December 19, 2002 the five defendants’ convictions were vacated by New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada. Another man, a career violent criminal named Matias Reyes, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crime. He claimed that he assaulted the victim on that fateful night, and he did it alone. His DNA was tested against the DNA which was found on the victim’s body. The test results came back with a match, something which had never happened to the Central Park 5 (as they came to be known). They had already been released from incarceration for several years, but the confirmation of their innocence was a long awaited relief. Twelve years later, the City of New York finally agreed to a $40 million settlement and the Central Park Five were finally able to feel a sense of justice which had eluded them for the past 25 years. The question still remained: how could justice become so derailed?

A confession, or admission of guilt, while being interrogated by the police seems like a very straight forward concept. A guilty party (if so persuaded) would admit to a crime which they had committed, and an innocent person would not. Therefore, the common assumption would be, only guilty people admit to being guilty. Sadly, this is not always the case. In roughly 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty. These are men and women who have been scientifically proven to be innocent of their charges, yet they still confessed to those crimes. This is the issue with confessions; they give the impression of infallibility, while in reality being far from it.

The case of the Central Park Five is the perfect embodiment of this issue. Five teenagers were picked up by the police, their names were released to the press (before they were arraigned), and then they were intensely questioned by the police, which certainly must have been one of the most frightening experiences of their young lives.  They were questioned, prodded, threatened with addition jail time, and fed lies about the investigation (they were told by detectives that they had found their fingerprints on the victims). They were pushed and pushed, until they broke down and admitted to a crime of which they have scientifically been proven to be innocent. There was no physical evidence in the case and there were no eye witnesses. The case rested solely on those confessions. That was enough to rob these five young men of their youth and put them in prison for a combined 40 years.

This is the danger of a conviction based solely on a confession. A confession is not infallible evidence, and yet is continued to be treated as such. This is quite troublesome, due to there being an incredible amount of factors which could contaminate a confession, rendering it false. Whether it be incompetence/malice on the part interrogators, pressure/fear on the part of the suspect, or a combination of the both, it is far too easy for a miscarriage of justice to occur. Yet, situations similar to the Central Park Five are far from rare. There are currently countless people incarcerated due to convictions based solely on confessions. Surely, many of these people may actually be guilty of their crimes. However, as the Central Park Five have shown, it is incredibly possible that a large number of those prisoners may very well be innocent. They could simply be victims of being pushed into saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

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New Ruling Strips Fifth Amendment Rights

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 26, 2013 @ 10:59 AM — Comments (1)

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court held that you remain silent at your own peril in a case called Salinas v. Texas. The Court’s move to cut off the right to remain silent is wrong and also dangerous – it encourages the kind of high-pressure questioning that can elicit false confessions.

The details from the case are nuanced and complex: two brothers were shot at home in Houston. There were no witnesses – only shotgun shells left at the scene. Genovevo Salinas had been at a party at that house the night before the shooting, and police invited him down to the station, where they talked for an hour. They did not arrest him or read him his Miranda rights. Salinas agreed to give the police his shotgun for testing. Then the cops asked whether the gun would match the shells from the scene of the murder. According to the police, Salinas stopped talking, shuffled his feet, bit his lip, and started to tighten up.

At trial, Salinas did not testify, but prosecutors described his allegedly uncomfortable reaction to the question about his shotgun. Salinas argued this violated his Fifth Amendment rights: he had remained silent, and the U.S. Supreme Court had previously made clear that prosecutors can’t bring up a defendant’s refusal to answer the State’s questions.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, posited that Salinas was “free to leave” and did not assert his right to remain silent. He was silent; apparently, though, that was not enough.  Without a lawyer and without being told his rights, he evidently should have affirmatively “invoked” his right to not answer questions. Now people have to somehow invoke the right to remain silent even when they’re not formal suspects and they haven’t heard the Miranda warnings.

The Court’s ruling in Salinas is all the more troubling because during such informal, undocumented, and unregulated questioning, there are special dangers that police may, intentionally or not, elicit false confession from innocent suspects. Of the people exonerated by DNA testing, approximately 25% falsely confessed, and many supposedly admitted their guilt even before formal interrogation. This new ruling simply opens another avenue for police to pressure suspects into confession, regardless of innocence. The likely result of the Court’s embrace of shoddy interrogation tactics: more wrongful convictions.

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Court Orders Review of 50+ Brooklyn Murder Cases

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 23, 2013 @ 9:55 AM — Comments (0)

Often times, wrongful convictions stem from shady police and detective practices, such as contaminated confessions and false eyewitness identification. Such practices are difficult to reform, especially when the public turns a blind eye to such corruptions.

These issues have reached a boil for acclaimed New York City homicide detective Louis Scarcella, an officer who handled some of Brooklyn’s most notorious crimes during the 1980s and 90s. Following the New York Times’ discovery of disturbing patterns in about a dozen of his cases, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office has ordered a review of more than 50 murder cases assigned to Scarcella, an acknowledgment of mounting questions about the officer’s tactics and the legitimacy of the convictions.

One particularly alarming pattern is the use of a single eyewitness, Ms. Teresa Gomez, a drug addict born in Trinidad, for several separate murders. In the late 1980s Ms. Gomez testified that she saw drug dealer Robert Hill commit two separate murders. Both times, she was the only eyewitness. Despite admitting outright that she lied during the first trial, Mr. Hill was still convicted. Ms. Gomez resurfaced for the trial of Mr. Hill’s stepbrothers, Darryl Austin and Alvena Jennette, a trial that also ended in conviction. According to Scarcella, she has testified in at least six cases and he has nothing but praise for her.

Scarcella may also have engaged in questionable tactics to elicit information from witnesses or suspects, or even completely fabricate testimonies. This was the case with Shabaka Shakur, who was convicted based on an incriminating statement Scarcella claims to have obtained during his interrogation, although the underlying interrogation notes were missing. Witnesses and suspects alike have come forward to claim that they were threatened and coerced into testifying how Scarcella coached them.

The incongruities in his cases shed a light on gaping flaws in the criminal justice system. The fact the the cases are under review suggests a much-needed move towards reformation. Improving fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system benefits all segments of society. Victims and their families can see justice; prosecutors and police can have the tools to do their jobs well; the public can have more confidence in the system; and innocent people and their families can avoid the tragedy of wrongful convictions.

Read the full article here.

 

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Plea Bargaining: Coercion or Choice?

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 23, 2013 @ 3:09 PM — Comments (16)

When the founding fathers included the sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights, I am sure they never imagined that in this day and age almost 90 percent of defendants in criminal cases would relinquish their constitutional rights and plead guilty. According to the Federal Justice Statistics, less than 5 percent of defendants in criminal cases actually exercised their right to a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury in 2009.

What are plea bargains?
Plea bargains are non-trial procedures where defendants are offered a minimized punishment or charge than they would receive if they proceeded to trial.

“During an arraignment the defendant is faced with the maximum charge or punishment that the defendant will be held to if he or she goes to trial. The prosecutor will present the defendant with an opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to the original charge with less than the maximum sentence” – Bureau of Justice Assistance

Why are plea bargains offered?
There are many arguments that favor plea bargains; however the argument of cost and time is most prominent and significant. Those in favor conclude the practice saves courts time and money.

Some trials are known to last several months at great cost to the courts and the defendant. The McMartin Preschool trial is known as the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S  history. It had a life span of three years and cost the government alone roughly $15 million.

Harvard law professor William Stuntz has noted that “due to docket pressure, prosecutors lack the time to pursue even some winnable cases,” and that “prosecutors in most jurisdictions have more cases than they have time to handle them.”

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Opposing Views and The Reality of Plea Bargains and Innocence
Those skeptical of or against plea bargains state it’s a tool used to undermine the sixth amendment and gives too much power to prosecutors. During sentencing, judges are given strict guidelines to follow; however, prosecutors are allowed much more freedom. It has been noted that prosecutors have been found to use threats to pressure defendants into a plea bargains, especially when the evidence is feeble.

Others argue the use of plea bargains in turn punishes defendants who exercise their constitutional right and proceed to a trial. For example, in 1963, Henry Alford was indicted on first degree murder charges. Although he plead guilty to the crime, he was very vocal about his innocence. The plea deal offered him a life sentence in place of capital punishment. Alford stated on many occasions that he was coerced into a confession and plead guilty for the fear of a harsher sentence.

While Alford’s innocence is important, his case raised more significant questions. Does fear constitute coercion and do plea bargains really offer a choice for some defendants? On the other side of the spectrum there are those who argue no one is forced into taking a plea bargain, and it’s a choice the defendant must make.

However, with the options given to defendants, is it really a choice?

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The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma
A college student in Florida was accused of cheating on a logic test being administered as part of a psychological study. She was given two choices. If she confessed to cheating and saved the university time and money of going to trial in front of the Academic Review Board, she would lose her right to compensation for participating in the study. However, if she proceeded to trial and was found guilty, she would lose the compensation, her faculty adviser would be informed and she would be forced to enroll in an ethics course. Although the loss of compensation was a great punishment, it was far better than having to take a time consuming ethics course. Though she was completely innocent, with the options given to her, the student chose to admit to cheating.

What the student didn’t know was she was actually part of a psychological study that attempted to recreate why and how an innocent person might plead guilty. The result’s of The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem revealed 56 percent of the innocent participants admitted to cheating. Although the punishment and the situations aren’t precise to criminal cases, the study puts into perspective how a persons feels while weighing their options. The study found what most may have predicted, guilty persons are more likely to plead guilty than innocent persons. However, the fact that more than half of the innocent participants admitted guilt is a significant find.

Most innocent students chose to avoid the trial and the consequences that may come of it. For 56 percent of the innocent persons, it was more beneficial to admit to cheating, than being found guilty at trial, even though they didn’t cheat.

This is parallel to the criminal cases. Defendants are “rewarded” for accepting a plea bargains, yet if found guilty are punished for going to trial. One must ask would the founding fathers – who included the Bill of Rights in the constitution as a protective measure against the government – consider this justice, a system that gives criminals the easy way out, and puts innocent people in a tricky predicament.

Share Your Thoughts
Coercion or Choice? Which side are you on?


Special Thanks to Lucian E. Dervan and Vanessa Edkins for allowing us to share their study The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem.

Lucian E. Dervan and Vanessa A. Edkins, The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem, 103 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology – (forthcoming 2013).

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