Would you ever plead guilty to a crime that you didn’t commit? Most people would say, “no way.” But until you’ve been through a grueling interrogation, you may not understand just how easy and common false confessions are.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, about 15 percent of wrongful convictions that have been overturned occurred due to false guilty pleas. Why would suspects confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Sadly, it is often because of the coercive, deceptive and exhausting interrogation techniques used by law enforcement agencies.
In late 2016, a former homicide detective named James Trainum released a book, descriptively titled “How the Police Generate False Confessions.” His interest in the subject began in earnest in the mid 1990s, when he (unknowingly) got a female suspect to confess to murder, only to have her recant her confession later. He took a closer look at the evidence and realized that the woman could not have been where she had claimed to be, and therefore could not have committed the murder.
Trainum took the unusual step of corroborating a recanted confession. Sadly, too many investigators and prosecutors use a suspect’s “confession” to push aggressively for conviction even if there are serious questions about how the confession was obtained or doubts about its validity.
False confessions are especially likely in cases where the suspects are juveniles, cognitively impaired or simply do not understand their rights. Many interrogations are conducted without an attorney present and without being recorded. That means that juries may have no idea what kinds of tactics were used to obtain a confession. If they did, they may be less likely to see the confession as valid.
Trainum makes the argument that the methods American law enforcement agencies use in interrogations need to be reformed. And at the very least, all interrogations sessions need to be video recorded in their entirety so that jurors and others can see just how tenuous these “confessions” may actually be.
If you or a loved one is ever arrested and submitted to interrogation, please understand that you have the right to an attorney. And it is crucial to exercise that right before answering any questions.