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The Truth about False Confessions

The American criminal justice system is based on the idea that guilt must be proven, and that until it is, anyone charged with a crime is innocent. That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, those involved in criminal trials often have personal biases, preconceived notions, and limited access to pertinent evidence.

When you’re facing a criminal charge, you most likely want to take whatever steps are necessary to defend your innocence, including hiring a defense attorney and complying with the regulations of the court. What you don’t want to do is confess-especially if you didn’t commit the crime in the first place.

Offering a false confession may seem like the rare behavior of a deranged or deluded individual, but in reality it’s fairly common. As DNA exonerations become more frequent in cases where the suspect confessed, groups like AlterNet.org and the Innocence Project are beginning to investigate.

Before exploring the findings of various studies, let’s take a moment to note some high-profile false confessions. In the 1989 case of the Central Park Jogger, five men falsely confessed to charges of rape and murder. In 2002, they were released from prison when new confessions and DNA evidence exonerated them.

In cases of celebrity crimes, like the Lindbergh Kidnapping and the murder of the Black Dahlia, dozens of people came forward claiming culpability. And, more recently, Senator Larry Craig has claimed he accidentally pled guilty to charges.

Reports from AlterNet.org indicate that, among the DNA exonerations investigated, false confessions led to conviction in about 25% of cases. That means that, after witness misidentification, false confession is a leading cause of wrongful convictions, according to the study.

If you didn’t do it, why confess?

There are a few reasons. Sometimes, according to experts’ reported opinions, people confess to protect someone. Sometimes, they’re trying to punish themselves for past wrongdoing. Sometimes they crave fame. But sometimes, police questioning tactics are to blame.

Reports show that the average time of police questioning is one to two hours. The average time of questioning that yields a false conviction? Sixteen and a half.

In this time, studies suggest, police use manipulation, threats, misinformation (such as lying about the results of a polygraph), and even psychological torture. For those susceptible to the influence of others, these tactics can cause suspects to crack under strain and confess to crimes they never committed, according to sources.

In extreme cases, AlterNet reports, innocent people internalize the idea of guilt and actually believe they committed a crime.

And once a confession is videotaped, the confessor is as good as convicted. Even in the case of Christopher Ochoa, who agreed to confess after hours of aggressive police questioning-but couldn’t get the details of the crime he allegedly committed right. Even though he was obviously innocent, police presented his confession to a jury, sources say.

What’s being done?

In the early 20th century, laws existed that disallowed any confessions that had been obtained by beating or otherwise tormenting a suspect. Then, in 1991, a case introduced the “harmless error rule,” which meant that confessions obtained under questionable circumstances could be admitted if there was enough supplementary evidence proving guilt.

Many see this ruling as a step backwards for criminal justice.

In some states, according to reports, steps are being taken to ensure fair questioning procedures. Some police are required to videotape entire investigations instead of just confessions. This measure is meant to prevent overly-aggressive techniques.


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