It may seem inconceivable that a defendant would give a false confession, and yet it is an extraordinarily common occurrence. Police misconduct may be to blame for many false confessions, but there are many factors that may lead a person to admit to a crime they did not commit. The Innocence Project reports that false confessions take place in 24 % of approximately 289 convictions reversed because of DNA evidence. Youth, those with mental health issues, and individuals under the influence of drugs and alcohol are especially susceptible to suggestion and therefore tend to be over-represented in false confession data. [ 1 ] For an overview on false confessions, we’ve provided a few helpful links below:
- Chicago has been dubbed the False Confession Capital by 60 Minutes. Watch the eye-opening program on the cases of two EP exonerees, James Harden & Harold Richardson: Chicago: The False Confession Capitol
- For an in-depth look at police interrogations techniques that can produce false confessions, see this Douglas Starr Article for the New Yorker: The Interview
- Professors Richard Leo and Steve Drizin have an excellent article on the topic entitled: “The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World” (North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 82, 2004). You can view also view, “False Confession: Causes, Consequences, and Implications,” by Leo without purchase.
- Finally, Frontline breaks down different resources on false confession here: Frontline: The Confessions
Police & Prosecutorial Misconduct
Many wrongful convictions can be traced back to constitutional violations committed by the investigating police officers and/or prosecutors involved. Infamous individuals such as Chicago’s own Jon Burge, have shed light on the illegal tactics employed in some police departments and prosecutor’s offices. The EP has cases with confessions that have been tortured out of innocent defendants, as well as cases where prosecutors have withheld exculpatory information from defendants during trial (such as alternative suspects who have confessed to a crime). Unfortunately, there is a broad range of misconduct that can occur during the investigation of a crime, and the subsequent trial. For a look at some common occurrences, we’ve linked to a few studies and articles below:
- An archive of articles on Police Torture in Chicago by the Chicago Reader
- A compilation of the Special Prosecutor’s Report into the misconduct of Jon Burge
- “Police Misconduct as a Cause of Wrongful Convictions” a report by Russell D. Covey (Georgia State University College of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013-26)
- Center for Prosecutor Integrity’s White Paper on “An Epidemic of Prosecutor Misconduct“
MORE ON PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT…
The Brady problem is in many ways structural. Prosecutors have the task of deciding when a piece of evidence would be helpful to the defense. But since it is their job to believe in the defendant’s guilt, they have little incentive to turn over, say, a single piece of exculpatory evidence when they are sitting on what they see as a mountain of evidence proving guilt. The lack of professional consequences for failing to disclose exculpatory evidence only makes the breach of duty more likely. As Judge Kozinski wrote, “Some prosecutors don’t care about Brady because courts don’t make them care.”
Courts should heed Judge Kozinski’s call, but it will take more than judges to fix the problem. Prosecutors’ offices should adopt a standard “open file” policy, which would involve turning over all exculpatory evidence as a rule, thus reducing the potential for error.