Confessions (even a partial admission of some fact) can be conclusively powerful evidence in the prosecutor’s case against the accused.

A confession is often seen as the deciding factor in criminal cases: after all, if someone says they committed a crime or some other act, doesn’t that prove that they did? Why would anyone admit to committing a crime – all the more so, a horrendous crime – if they didn’t really do it? Guilty!

Unfortunately, people who view confessions in this black-and-white manner may fail to consider the circumstances that led the individual to confess.

For example, the case of Ada JoAnn Taylor:

On February 6, 1985, a 68-year-old woman was raped and killed in her Beatrice, Nebraska, home. Four years later, six people – three men and three women – were convicted of committing the crime together

Ada JoAnn Taylor agreed with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify at the trial of co-defendant Joseph White regarding her alleged role in the murder. In exchange for her testimony, she was sentenced to 10 to 40 years in prison. She was serving time in a work release program when DNA tests cleared her. She was freed in late 2008 and pardoned in early 2009.

Ada had served nearly 19 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

Police interrogation tactics are back in the news again after New York’s highest appeals court recently heard two cases where defendants may have confessed falsely due to police coercion. In both People v. Thomas and People v. Aveni, police introduced information that they knew to be false into an already highly emotional situation in order to get Adrian Thomas and Paul Aveni to confess to playing a role in the death of loved ones. Thomas now accuses the police of coercing him onto making a patently false confession.

Police Trick and Manipulate Suspects’ Emotions in Thomas and Aveni Cases

After a nine and a half hour interrogation, Adrian Thomas confessed.  He was convicted of second-degree murder of his infant son based on that confession. The marathon interrogation would have placed anyone under duress, but it was particularly stressful for Thomas, who knew that his son had been hospitalized but could not receive any updates on his condition.

In reality, Thomas’ son was already brain dead due to severe head trauma, but the police told Thomas that doctors would be able to save the infant if they knew how the injury occurred. They also told Thomas he wouldn’t face criminal charges if he explained how the accident happened and threatened to “scoop up” Thomas’ wife if he didn’t talk. Finally, Thomas caved and said that he would “take the rap.”

Paul Aveni was placed in a similar situation after his girlfriend overdosed in 2009 on a combination of heroin, ecstasy, and Xanax. When police brought Aveni in for questioning, they knew that his girlfriend had already died, but they claimed she was alive and said that, if she did die and he failed to provide the information they were after, he would be charged with murder. Like Thomas, Aveni finally broke down and confessed.

What Kind of Interrogation Elicits False Confessions?

It’s clear from the cases of Taylor, Thomas and Aveni, and the recorded history of false confessions in the U.S. and around the world, that defendants do sometimes say what they think the police want to hear because they believe it will put an end to their mental anguish or save the life of a loved one. According to the Innocence Project, roughly 28% of prisoners exonerated by DNA had been convicted after confessing to a crime that they didn’t commit.

So what are police officers doing that causes people to wrongfully take responsibility for a crime? According to a recent article in The New Yorker, some interrogators use a controversial method called the “Reid Technique” in which they downplay the consequences a suspect may face for confessing and pretend to have evidence that they don’t. With Thomas, interrogators went one step further and suggested that a confession was the only thing that could save Thomas’ son. If suspects deny committing a crime, the interrogator will refuse to accept their denial, gradually breaking the suspect down. After a long and emotionally draining interrogation session, suspects often see a confession as their only way out.

False confession expert Richard Leo says that, while many people don’t think they’d ever falsely confess to a crime, everyone has their breaking point, and some people will even become convinced they’ve committed a crime they didn’t commit after an extremely grueling interrogation. Lower-functioning people or people with a mental illness are particularly at risk for giving a false confession in this type of situation.

So You Say Conviction Shouldn’t Be Based on Confessions Alone?

You are right. And New York law already mandates that convictions must not be based on confessions or admissions alone. (Check the New York Criminal Procedure Law, section 60.50: “A person may not be convicted of any offense solely upon evidence of a confession or admission made by him without additional proof that the offense charged has been committed.”)

The Courts/Judges understand this law to ‘not require corroboration of confessions or admissions in every detail, but only “some proof, of whatever weight”, that the offense charged has in fact been committed by someone’.  Really. This law will not prevent unjust convictions.

Very often, convictions and sentences are handed down based on the perceived importance of a defendant’s confession. In fact, police-induced false confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions. In some cases, an individual who falsely confessed is later exonerated by DNA evidence, but only after having served a significant amount of time in prison.

Changes clearly need to occur in several places. Firstly, our legislators must take a critical look at police interrogator methods. Then, the lawmakers must pass laws that mandate the police to change their methods. The police obviously don’t want to elicit false confessions, but in their overzealousness to find the perpetrator of a crime and make an arrest, they do end up manipulating and coercing a suspect. Perhaps police should not be able to give suspects information that they know to be false, or to downplay the seriousness of a crime in the hopes that a suspect will say what they want to hear.

Secondly, judges and juries may need to change the way they think about confessions and admissions. It’s clear that just because someone under duress admitted to committing a crime doesn’t necessarily mean that they did it.

Lastly, for now, the defense attorney must be empowered further to present a strong defense.

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