My last post asked why anyone would ever confess to a crime that they did not commit, and it explained how false confessions happen. I used the example of the case of Richard Lapointe, a man who is still incarcerated but who will now receive a new trial. (The NPR story on Lapointe is here.)
In late September, Damon Thibodeaux was released for the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he had spent the past fifteen years, most of it on death row, for a rape and murder he confessed to — but did not commit. (In fact, the DNA work revealed that no rape actually occurred at all.) It was his confession that doomed him — in fact, it was virtually the only evidence that connected him with the crime. When he was released, he became the 300th person released after conviction in the U.S. through DNA work — the 18th from death row. Thibodeaux’s case is one of the approximately 25 percent of the exonerations that have contained a false confession or false statement.
It’s worth noting that Thibodeaux’s case shares many of the characteristics that the cases of so many others do:
1) prolonged interrogations — in Thibodeaux’s case, nine hours;
2) a defendant who was threatened with the death penalty if he did not confess;
3) details of the confession that do not match the physical details of the case (such as in the notorious Norfolk Four case, which you can read about in The Wrong Guys: Murder, Confessions, and the Norfolk Four, by Tom Wells and Richard Leo); and
4) no recording of the interrogation, in which Thibodeaux says detectives fed him details of the crime so that he could parrot them back, and put enormous pressure on him (including the threat of death by lethal injection).
That Thibodeaux is now alive and free might cause some to re-think the wisdom of the death penalty. But whether it does or not, it should cause every law enforcement agency, and every legislative body, to begin video recording interrogations from beginning to end. A recording might have caused prosecutors to question just how good a piece of evidence this confession was. Or it may have raised questions in the minds of some of the jurors.