Why Innocent Men Make False Confessions

It's not just an anomaly. New cases shed light on the phenomenon of admitting to a crime you didn't commit

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Demonstrators outside a New York City courthouse on Dec. 5, 2002, call for justice in the case of five youths convicted in the 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park

Correction Appended: Feb. 12, 2013

In 1995, Daniel Taylor was convicted of a double murder in Chicago in what seemed to be a clear-cut case: he gave police a signed confession. But now his supporters — including Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and a Chicago Tribune columnist — are insisting he is innocent. They are asking that Taylor, who is serving life in prison without parole, be freed.

They have a compelling argument: there is strong evidence that Taylor was actually in police custody when the 1992 murders took place. He had been picked up on a disorderly conduct charge, it seems, and was being held in a North Side jail — and he was only released on bond two hours after the killings.

But what about his confession? Why would an innocent man sign a statement saying he had committed murder? As it turns out, Taylor’s case is a fairly typical story: a frightened young person manipulated by police into making statements whose significance he did not understand. If the past few years have taught us anything it’s that false confessions are not only possible, but they also happen more often than anyone would think.

(VIDEO: Barry Scheck, Justice Seeker)

False confessions play a major role in two recent documentaries about wrongful convictions. West of Memphis examines the case of three young Arkansas men who were locked up for the horrific 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys. Perhaps the most powerful piece of the prosecution’s case was a confession by Jessie Misskelley describing in graphic detail how he and his two co-defendants beat, raped and mutilated the boys. The documentary, however, showed how the police could — after hours of intense interrogation, heavy with leading questions — manipulate and extract a false story from Misskelley, an unsophisticated young man with a low IQ.

The Central Park Five explores the notorious 1989 case in which five black and Hispanic teenagers were convicted of raping and beating a 28-year-old white jogger in Central Park. The men were found guilty of what New York’s mayor called “the crime of the century” and served as much as 13 years in prison. But all five of those convictions were overturned in 2002, after a murderer and serial rapist confessed to the attack.

The Central Park Five documentary begins with the voice of the actual attacker, Matias Reyes, saying over footage of the crime scene – ‘I’m the one that did this.’  But Reyes was not originally convicted – five innocent men were, after four of them made videotaped confessions.  The Central Park Five shows just how difficult it can be to get beyond a defendant’s self-incriminating words. An expert in false confessions, Saul Kassin, notes: “Once the confession is taken, it trumps everything else, it trumps DNA evidence, its effects cannot be reversed.”

(MORE: Q&A: The Wrongly Convicted Central Park Five on Their Documentary)

But false confessions aren’t just a strange anomaly — they’re a phenomenon that’s beginning to get attention by criminal-justice experts and legal academics. In his book Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, looked at 250 cases in which innocent people were cleared by DNA evidence, including 40 in which there were false confessions. Garrett found that in many of the cases the defendants were young or mentally disabled. In none were the interrogations recorded, making it difficult to know what manipulative and coercive measures the police used.

Despite the increased awareness, it’s still extremely difficult to reverse a conviction once the defendant has confessed. In most instances, it comes down to relitigating the whole case, fighting once again over the testimony and circumstantial evidence used to convict. Cook County prosecutors are currently reviewing Daniel Taylor’s case. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has been crusading for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to undo what he calls Taylor’s “highly corrupted” conviction and set him free. As his advocates note, there is strong evidence of innocence beyond the fact that Taylor appears to have been in jail during the crime. Among other things, a co-defendant and other key witnesses have also come forward to say he was not involved. As for the confession, Taylor now alleges that the police used dishonest and coercive techniques.

In the past couple of decades, the rise of DNA evidence has shown the public in unmistakable terms that the criminal-justice system makes mistakes and that the wrong people are sometimes convicted. False confessions can be the toughest subset of these cases, but people are coming to recognize that sometimes defendants admit to crimes they did not commit. With increased awareness should come greater caution about how confessions are used at trial — and a greater willingness to overturn convictions when it becomes clear that a confession was untrue.

MORE: Top 10 Notorious Fugitives

The original version of this article stated that Matias Reyes was one of the wrongly convicted men in the Central Park jogger case. Reyes actually was the one who committed the attack.