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True stories of false confessions

Jan 08, 2010

True Stories of False Confessions: edited by Rob Warden and Steven Drizin. Chicago IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009. paperback, 514 pages.

by Eric Assur

The justice system seeks to administer true justice. That a number of citizens have been executed and then later been revealed as innocent is a profound statement that the system is not perfect. The Innocence Project and similar groups in the North American justice system have shown that hundreds of incarcerated persons should never have been found guilty. This book is a sobering rendition of a few dozen such crime stories and legal travesties. 

Confessions would seem to be convincing evidence of actual guilt. But they are not. True Stories is an anthology of unnumbered chapters (there are over 40) called ‘cases’ that are arranged or presented in groupings based on the type of faulty confession. 

The tales recount justice gone badly in situations where the state or government used a confession to prove guilt. Physical evidence and eyewitness testimony played no part in gaining these convictions. The alleged criminals actually confessed to something they did not do. 

Each of the stories retells the offense details, the forensic investigation, the rounding up of suspects, the “confession,” the adjudication and the finding of guilt and sentencing. The editors draw on court documents as well as newspaper, magazine and book accounts, and they wisely tell the tails with little preaching.  The stories by themselves are compelling and damning.

The two editors are professors at Northwestern University and have participated in efforts to exonerate the wrongly convicted. One teaches law (www.law.northwestern/cwc) and the other journalism. Both have been involved with the Innocence Project (http://www.exonerate.org). As a consequence they have recommendations for police and prosecutors to guard against false confessions.

One is that all police custody interrogations be audio- and video-taped. Another is that interrogations be limited to six hours with a showing that steps were taken to “alleviate the stress, fatigue, hunger, disorientation and other environmental factors known to have contributed to false confessions.” Polygraphs and voice-stress analyzers should be eliminated. 

Further, the highest courts must review cases where police lies to defendants have been sanctioned. Is it ever appropriate for police officers to lie in order to extract confessions?  If you were intoxicated the night of the murder and were told that they recovered your fingerprints were at the scene, would this induce you to ‘recall’ that you were involved?  Warden and Drizin assert that the interests of justice “would be better served by the suppression of all confessions by juveniles, the mentally retarded, and the mentally ill to whom interrogators have lied.” 

False Confessions lays out just how errors in investigation occur and how we can modify  justice system procedures to reduce errors that allow the true criminal to prey again. DNA and other scientific or forensic lab tools play little part in this book, except to appear many years later to prove some soul innocent.  The stories generally recount situations where confessions were extracted from the mentally retarded and/or persons deprived of sleep. They were denied the opportunity to consult with a lawyer and were told crime scene details to help fill in blanks in their confession. 

Each story is followed by the post conviction appeals results. The stories are interesting but sad Four (4) of the cases are from Virginia. The now nationally famous 1997 ‘Norfolk Four’ rape and murder case (http://www.norfolkfour.com) is one of those. It powerfully asks the question that each story raises: How could four sailors, each with no prior police history, be convicted and sentenced based solely on their own fabricated individual confessions and statements with no supportive crime scene evidence? The reasons, it turns out, are as varied as the stories themselves. 

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Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Jan 11, 2010 07:35 PM

Thank you for posting this. Some think there is little connection between restorative justice and wrongful convictions (or miscarriage of justice). They would be wrong. Restorative justice opens the door for systemic reform of deeply flawed criminal justice systems worldwide. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

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