Like most people, for years I believed no person would ever confess to a serious crime that the person did not commit, except if there was abuse in the interrogation room.  It just seemed implausible: admitting to a crime meant you were subjecting yourself to punishment — maybe decades in prison or even death.  There’s no way you’d do that unless it was true (or you were forced into it).

Of course, with DNA on the scene for more than 20 years, we know better: people do confess to crimes they did not commit, usually because of the huge pressures brought to bear on them in the interrogation room.  According to the Innocence Project, about a quarter of the post-conviction DNA-based exonerations on record featured a false confession, or a false statement of guilt of some kind.

Here’s a story that you can listen to or read that makes a good example of how and why this can happen.  In this case, a man named Richard Lapointe confessed falsely to a rape and murder and has served 23 years in prison.  A court has now ruled that he must receive a new trial.  This story puts many of  the major causes of false confessions on display:

* The interrogation was not recorded.  Recording of interrogations can reduce false confessions and supply an indisputable record of what was said in the interrogation room.

* The police lied to Lapointe about falsified scientific evidence.  Police are allowed to lie in interrogations, but lies about scientific and forensic testing make prison seem inescapable, forcing the suspect to tell the police what they want to hear in order to stop the pressure.

* The interrogation continued for about nine hours, far longer than average.  This increases the chances of a false confession.

* Lapointe was brain damaged, and the police knew it.  Mental disabilities make false confessions more likely.

Lapointe’s case is an object lesson in what can go wrong, and what we should be doing to make sure this doesn’t happen.  We should record all interrogations, front to back;  prohibit lying to suspects about test results; and limit interrogation times to two hours, with extensions (perhaps to four hours) only with a supervisor’s permission.  These simple steps can keep us from hearing more stories like Lapointe’s in the future.

  1. […] by law enforcement in every jurisdiction in which it is required — see the many comments here and in Failed Evidence from police and prosecutors experienced with recording — most agencies […]

  2. Vickie Willis says:

    Yes this is an area that law enforcement should tread very lightly, for this individual knows not of what they are saying or mean.

  3. […] of the Failed Evidence blog will recall the story of Richard Lapointe, the Connecticut man who was convicted for the murder of his wife’s grandmother.  Lapointe, […]

  4. This is a very good point, Susan. Lapointe was brain damaged; along with the emotionally disturbed and the very young, I’d put all of them in the category of vulnerable populations. I believe that any time police know or should know that they are dealing with someone who is vulnerable on these levels, questioning should stop until an attorney is present. (I had a police officer at one of my book talks who reacted very negatively to this; he said that basically all suspects were disturbed, mentally deficient, immature, etc., so this would put lawyers in every interrogation room, and that would end interrogations as we know them. I disagree — the Miranda case got the same reaction, and it hasn’t panned out that way.)

    David Harris

  5. susanfreiman says:

    What about the people who are emotionally disturbed or of low intelligence?

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