Monday, October 06, 2008

Untrue Confessions

How People Tell Cops They're Guilty Even When They Aren't

by Emily Horowitz, 10/6/08,

Emily Horowitz is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College (Brooklyn, NY). She serves as a director of the National Center for Reason and Justice (, an innocence project for people wrongly accused or convicted of crimes against children and a sponsor of Khemwatie Bedessie.
It’s also agreed that illegal practices occur frequently in the interrogation room, and that cops later lie about them on the stand. And when there is an argument about veracity, research suggests that no group of people – not judges, prosecutors or juries – can tell whether a confession is true or false simply by reading a transcript or watching the video...not just the confession should be recorded, but also the full interrogation that led up to it. The idea is to avoid methods that – as the Supreme Court has put it – “shock the conscience” and “offend the community’s sense of fair play and decency.”

Ten years ago, only two states were recording interrogations. Now, nine states and the District of Columbia do, and they are joined by more than 500 local police departments nationwide ... it’s spreading, says Northwestern University legal scholar Steven Drizin, an expert on false confessions who has advocated for taping for years.

...1966 Miranda decision, Earl Warren recommended that the police find other evidence to solve a crime than the “cruel, simple expedient of compelling it from [the suspect’s] own mouth.”

...wholly opposes the eliciting and use of confession to solve and prosecute crimes. But, if confession is employed, he believes the case should never go forward unless meaningful evidence is first gathered...

Forensic science in the U.S. today is so sophisticated and high tech...that police have only to use it. All that is required to convict criminals justly is that the cops do their job.

Further, reliance on confessions promotes disgraceful conditions of detention. Jails are often worse than prisons. Filth, bad food, lack of sunlight, crowding and violence pressure people to say they did something – anything, whether it’s true or not – just to get out of lockup. Then, because they’ve confessed, we figure it’s OK to keep others like them in awful cells – and to bring in more detainees for interrogation. It’s a vicious circle, and most who get trapped in it are poor, uneducated, and unacculturated. Their marginal status is bound up with the moralistic judgment that they are different from us, and therefore bad. Their badness reinforces our willingness to keep a bad system in place. It probably also allows us to export illegal interrogation – our 1930s-era torture, updated – to places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Ninety-two per cent of felony convictions are obtained by plea bargains or confessions. That’s a far higher rate than in other countries...Italy’s, for example, is 8 per cent...

Relying on confessions to prosecute crimes is thrifty because it avoids the need for costly investigations. But it’s also very destructive to justice...