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.