The Problem With False Confessions
If the police suspect you of a crime, don’t expect them to help you. The police are in the business of putting the bad guys in jail. But, what happens when an innocent person has been marked as “the bad guy?” It is here where knowing your rights and knowing a few simple solutions can pay off in spades. It’s simply not as simple as telling the police they have the wrong person.
Recently, the Oklahoma Justice Commission made a report focusing on wrongful convictions in Oklahoma. One portion of this report focused on False Confessions. A false confession is a confession to a crime given by someone who did not commit the crime. Unsurprisingly, some of the factors that are involved in instances of false confessions are many tactics used regularly during a police interrogation. The Commission’s Report found the following factors at blame:
- Intense psychological pressure is applied by investigators during the course of an exceedingly lengthy (many hours, or even days) custodial interrogation. For example:
- A suspect may be told that he or she is likely to be convicted and sentenced to death; but if he or she confesses to the crime, the prosecution will recommend a non-capital sentence.
- A suspect may confess in order to bring a lengthy interrogation, conducted under harsh conditions, to an end.
- An interrogator may falsely tell a suspect that the suspect has failed a polygraph test.
- An interrogator may falsely tell a suspect that inculpating evidence has been found linking the suspect to the crime.
- An interrogator may falsely tell a suspect that another suspect has confessed and implicated him or her.
- A team of interrogators may employ strategies designed to lead a stressed or impaired suspect to accept the “help” of the “friendly” member of the team, who recommends that a confession is in the suspect’s best interest.
- Psychological pressure, combined with persistent repetition of facts by interrogators, can lead a suspect to become incorrectly convinced of his or her own guilt, producing a confession that regurgitates facts that have been told to the suspect over and over, perhaps even unintentionally.
- Juveniles and suspects who are mentally ill, mentally retarded, or borderline mentally retarded are especially vulnerable to the types of psychological pressure and intimidating interrogation techniques that lead to false confessions.
- There are reported cases in which verbal or even physical abuse of a suspect produced a false confession.
- Fatigue, substance abuse, language difficulties, and limited cognitive abilities sometimes contribute to false confessions.
The Commission’s Solution
The Oklahoma Justice Commission’s recommendation for avoiding all of these difficulties is simple, put a camera in the interrogation room. A camera in the room has numerous benefits to the police, but the Commission fails to notice the simple truth. A camera in the interrogation room is a double edged sword that can help both the police and the accused, especially in instances of a false confession. While a camera does record little details the police miss, and does help the police from worrying about taking so many notes, there are also benefits for the accused. Namely, it records what the police said and did as well. Just as it helps the police to point out when the bad guy is changing the story, it also keeps the police from editing the narrative into something that sounds better for them. It keeps them from focusing on only the great things for their case, but also shows the bad things that police from time to time forget to put into the reports. It lets a jury see if an interrogation did go way too long, so as to be coercive, of if, worst case, someone did use a phone book to help “encourage” the confession (although the Commission does ponder the police benefit of avoiding wrongful and false allegations of police brutality, there have been reported cases of such that were 100% true). And, just like for the police, it is admissible in court.
Wrongful convictions in Oklahoma won’t stop just with a camera in the interrogation room. But it’s a good start and it’s one that the police and citizens need to be assured will be there for someone else, like a judge or jury, to later review. That one camera allows a check against the full weight of the government being brandished into bullying the little guy. It balances the playing field so that the judge or jury can review what happened, to decide if it went too far or not. That helps avoid the false confessions that lead to wrongful convictions in Oklahoma, and represents a step towards justice from police oppression.
Stop False Confessions Before They Happen
What the Oklahoma Justice Commission fails to note, is there is another step to be taken to help avoid a false confession. Once the police start to interrogate someone, the best general advice is to assert your constitutional right to remain silent and demand that your attorney be present. From there, no matter what the police say, the response should always be, “I’ve asserted my right to remain silent and I want my lawyer present.” The only time to change this response, is to give the police the name of your lawyer.
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