Of the 311 cases of wrongful convictions documented by The Innocence Project, about 25 percent include a false confession or false statement of guilt. Yet false confessions remain the least understood type of justice system error. Most people still ask, “why would anyone confess to a serious crime he did not commit, without physical abuse, a mental handicap or lack of sobriety? I know I would never do that.” Twenty years ago, I would have said the same thing.
Well, if you want to know how false confessions happen — how an innocent person could confess, even supplying details of how the crime was committed that only the perpetrator would know — and if you want to know how this could happen with a fine police detective operating according to the rules — you must listen to the latest episode of the radio show This American Life, called “Confessions.” Here is the link to the show. The story (one of several on the theme of confessions) runs approximately 28 minutes
A very brief summary, without giving anything away: A Washington, D.C. detective investigating a murder participated in the interrogation of the main suspect. The woman denies any involvement at first, but after seventeen hours of questioning, she finally admits to participating in the crime, and supplies many incriminating details. After the suspect is charged but before her case goes to trial, follow up investigation by police causes the case to fall apart, and a judge orders her released from jail after nine months. The case is never solved. Some years later, the same detective is assigned to a cold case unit, and he begins to look into the case again by watching a video tape of the interrogation. What he sees reveals what went wrong, and it lays out an incredible lesson in exactly how the false confessions come to be. And we learn that the video tape recording of the full interrogation was actually made just by chance; in the usual course of things, there would have been no recording, and none of this would have been discovered.
For anyone interested in police interrogation, for anyone still asking how an innocent person could ever confess, I cannot recommend this program more highly. And it’s yet another endorsement of the idea that we must record interrogations if we are ever to solve this problem.