New Study Highlights Hazards of False Confessions

New research out of the Virginia School of Law, conducted by Professor Brandon L. Garrett, has shed light on the phenomenon of false confessions.

A false confession occurs when a suspect admits to having committed a crime that he/she did not commit in reality. DNA evidence may surface – sometimes years later – to exonerate the suspect, often after he/she has spent many years in prison.

Professor Garrett reviewed over three dozen examples of false confessions — examining recorded confessions, background documents, and transcripts of trials. He talked to numerous forensic and police officials to understand the psychology and the context of false confessions.

A recent New York Times article highlighting his work reviewed the fascinating case of a Kansas City man named Eddie Lowery, who was jailed for a decade after he confessed to raping a 75-year-old woman. DNA evidence later exculpated him. In the New York Times article, Mr. Lowery discussed how he capitulated and confessed after police subjected him to a high pressure, long duration interrogation. Lowery’s story allegedly became “contaminated” by information he learned during the interrogation. In other words, the police essentially fed Mr. Lowery details, which he incorporated into his confession, perhaps subconsciously.

Professor Garrett’s studies show that this kind of contamination – police accidentally influencing suspects’ testimony and recollections – may be far more common than most legal experts realize. Obviously, most officers don’t intentionally go about trying to do this – they merely want to get at the truth. But by feeding defendants information, taking them to crime scenes, and “correcting them” about details of the case, interrogators may sway certain suspects – particularly young and mentally incapacitated ones – to make a false confession.

False confessions lead to serious injustices – the New York Times article reviewed the plight of Earl Washington Jr., who spent over 18 years behind bars and nearly got executed after his confession. And the convictions of innocent people allow real perpetrators of serious crimes to escape the long arm of the law.

All this is to say that, if you or someone you love has been charged with a serious crime, you should seek solid legal representation ASAP. A good attorney can advise you and help you avoid common – and not so common – mistakes that suspects make. He or she can help you build a strategic path to maximizing your chances for a good defense.