The tragedy of false confessions and unjust convictions

In recent years, legal advocacy groups like the Innocence Project have been working to exonerate and free individuals who were wrongfully convicted and, as a result, wrongfully incarcerated. According to the Innocence Project website, 316 people in the United States have been exonerated (post-conviction) based on DNA evidence since the first such case in 1989. Approximately two-thirds were African American. This number represents only a fraction of total exonerations.

The high number of exonerations raises some important questions: Why were so many people wrongfully convicted in the first place? How could prosecutors and juries be so quick to convict these individuals of serious felony crimes such as sexual assault and murder? How can we keep this from happening to more innocent Americans?

There are many procedural and investigative errors that lead to wrongful convictions. Some are as simple as witness misidentification, but others are more complex. One factor in wrongful convictions is more common and problematic than most people realize: false confessions. It is estimated that among all wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, about 25 percent involved a false confession by the defendant.

Why would someone confess to something they didn’t do? False confessions are often the result of interrogation sessions that are so lengthy and aggressive that they psychologically wear down the suspect. Detectives and other law enforcement officials sometimes develop tunnel vision and become convinced that the suspect they are interrogating is the guilty party.

When they start with that premise, they may find ways to manipulate the interrogation in order to create guilt rather than expose it. Suspects are sometimes interrogated for dozens of hours at a stretch with little sleep and without a lawyer present. That kind of psychological strain can wear down even the most mentally resilient individuals.

Getting a conviction is not the same thing as finding justice. Law enforcement abuses that lead to false confessions do not make the streets safer. They take away the freedoms of innocent suspects while preventing police from searching for the actual offenders.

Thankfully, a conviction does not have to be the end of the road for defendants. Advocacy groups and experienced criminal defense attorneys are working tirelessly to make sure that the rights of the accused are respected.

Source: Austin Chronicle, “When Confessions Prove False,” Jordan Smith, April 25, 2014

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