He Confessed, He Must Be Guilty, Right?
Wrong. Sadly though, many people are basically convinced that if someone confesses to a crime, especially a heinous crime, they must be guilty. What other explanation could there be, since of course they think that they would never confess to a crime they didn’t commit. Sadly, people who think like this are mistaken. There are a number of scenarios where a false confession can be elicited from a suspect, and once the signature is on the confession, case closed. Prosecutors and detectives love confessions, because basically it means they don’t have do do their job and actually prove the suspect was guilty.
The first case where suspects may falsely confess is when they have low IQs. Someone with an IQ of 70 or 80 is going to have no idea of their rights, and likely a very dim idea of what is going on when they are being interrogated. Suspects like this have signed confessions becasue the police promised them a drink of water. In the infamous “Brother’s Keeper” case in Ohio a very dim witted man confessed to murdering his bother when police told him he could go home if he confessed. As one of the neighbours who rallied to his defence said “Give me ten minutes alone with him and I’ll get him to confess to ripping out the sidewalk in front of my house, and there is no sidewalk in front of my house.” Or Richard Buckland, a 17 year old with a sub normal IQ who confessed to brutally raping and killing two teenage girls, despite everyone who knew him’s insistence that he would confess to anything if pressed.
In the former case at least something good came of it, after the case was blown out of the water in court, the Ohio State Police issued guidelines for questioning low IQ suspects. And Mr Buckland lucked out. In his case for the first time in England the police used his DNA to connect him to the crime. They in fact only did so to showcase the new technology, they fully expected the lab report to confirm the confession. To their dismay, the DNA showed that the same killer had killed both girls, but it definitely wasn’t Mr Buckland. So the police said goddammit, we’ll test the DNA of every male in town. And they did. Even then the killer, Colin Pitchfork, almost got away with it by paying someone into taking the test in his place. Fortunately the fellow used his ill gotten gains to buy drinks at a bar, and was heard bragging about how he got paid £200 to take the blood test for someone. The bartender called the police, and Colin Pitchfork had the dubious honour of being the first person in England convicted on the basis of DNA evidence.
OK, but that’s low IQ people, how could a normal person ever confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Normally, they probably wouldn’t. However, confessions are often not obtained under normal circumstance. The recent Jerry Hobbs case is an excellent example. Mr Hobbs had spent 48 sleepless hours searching for his missing daughter and her friend. Then he was the one who found the girl’s brutally stabbed bodies. Then he spent the next 20 hours in police interrogation. Try to think about what sort of state he must have been in. 48 hours without sleep, finding your daughter’s brutally stabbed body, then being accused of the crime by police for 20 hours. I’m not sure I could go 68 hours without sleep, to put it mildly, Mr Hobbs wasn’t in his right mind when he signed a rambling almost incoherent confession. That was enough for the police and the public and the press though, they all declared him guilty and that was that. Nancy Grace even claimed she was so convinced of his guilt that she’d eat a dirt sandwich if he was proved innocent. Fortunately his friends and the public defender never gave up on him, and when DNA on the girl’s bodies eventually fingered the real killer, he was exonerated.
Then combine a suspect’s psychological vulnerability with the fact that the police are under no obligation to be honest, have a whole range of psychologically abusive techniques at their disposal, and have strong motivation to get confessions … and false confessions happen. It’s not at all unusual for police to claim that “We have the evidence, confess or you’ll get the death penalty.” That alone has coerced people into signing confessions in the hope that it can get sorted out later. One has to remember, if one really is innocent: “This can’t be happening to me” must overwhelm one’s thoughts. Or the police claiming that a co-suspect has confessed can be a powerful inducement. The Central Park jogger case is a wonderful example of how confessions can be coerced out of innocent people. Five black, well, knuckleheads were lied too, coerced, and manipulated into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. The police really dropped the ball on this one, and it’s fortunate that the real attacker finally surfaced or these five guys might still be in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. As one of the kid’s supporters put it: “The first thing you do in the United States of America when a white woman is raped is round up a bunch of black youths, and I think that’s what happened here.”
Lastly, there are unfortunately times when a false confession is a suspect’s best option. Say you’re a poor black kid from the projects, with a minor record. A cop claims he bought crack from you, and you’re charged with the crime. You know you’re innocent, but you also know that the judge, jury, cops, and possibly even your public defender are prejudiced against you. You have no money, and know your chances of a fair trial are essentially zero. You are offered a deal, what do you do? As one fellow in this situation put it: “I had a choice between doing fifteen years for a crime I didn’t commit or confessing and doing two years for a crime I didn’t commit.” In a perfect world people would never be faced with choices like this, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes people are.
I don’t have any facts or figures about how common this is, and I’m sure that the majority of cops and prosecutors are indeed trying to solve crimes and be a force for justice. Some aren’t though. And even for the ones that are, sadly there are powerful psychological and sociological forces that can compel people to focus on a particular suspect and be so convinced of their guilt that contradictory evidence is ignored. In the Jerry Hobbs case above, the dead girls had DNA from anther man under their fingernails and, well, in their pants … yet the case against Mr Hobbs continued inexorably forward on the basis of his “confession.” In a future post I might explore further some of these group think factors and psychological quirks that cause both the police and the public to rush to judgment. For now though, my point in this post is simple, the fact that someone confessed in and of itself is meaningless unless there is strong corroborative evidence.
I mean, reality consists of what really happened, not what someone said happened. One would think that would be a no-brainer, sadly humans seem programmed otherwise.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, yadda, yadda, yadda. This post is an adjunct to the idea that wrongful convictions are far more common than most Americans want to acknowledge. And in writing this post, I discovered that the three surviving brothers in the highly recommended “Brother’s Keepers” case I referred to above are all dead now. Wow. Life goes on, God rest their souls.)