It’s one of the bigger frustrations for a criminal lawyer. No matter what the rest of the evidence says, most jurors cannot believe that innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit. The New York Times recently published a story on this subject. Oakland police suspected a 16-year old named Felix in a murder investigation. During interrogation, the police refused to let Felix talk to his mother, and questioned him until he finally cracked and started telling the police what he thought they wanted to hear. His confession was extremely poor—none of the details fit the crime scene—but he slowly incorporated subtle details the police gave him.
Felix was saved from having to explain his unfortunate confession to a jury because, as it turns out, he had an airtight alibi: on the day of the murder, Felix was locked in a juvenile detention facility. While Felix was spared, false confessions occur more often than the general public wants to admit. As The New York Times article goes on to say:
Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and suspects who are drunk or high. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they go along with interrogators. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated.
False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Considering that DNA is available in just a fraction of all crimes, a much larger universe of erroneous convictions—and false confessions—surely exists.
The phenomenon of false confessions underscores a few things: 1) Police interrogation is serious business and it is very intimidating for the average citizen to endure. People who are susceptible to suggestions should never think about talking to the police alone. 2) The importance of getting a lawyer immediately cannot be overstated. Many people think they will get the police to see their point-of-view during an interrogation, but that isn’t a realistic expectation. The police interrogate suspects regularly who pretty much all say that they are innocent, but most suspects are novices at being interrogated. 3) Prospective jurors should be more skeptical of supposed confessions. The circumstances of a supposedly confession make a difference. But regardless of those circumstances, the police are going to show jurors the finished product: a tape recording or a written statement taken after many hours of continuous interrogation.