Sometimes murder suspects give false confessions and go to prison or are executed. Other times, they are exonerated. Either way, says the Arizona Republic, the average citizen is left wondering: How can those who are innocent admit to crimes they didn’t commit? An answer emerges from the interrogation of Robert Armstrong, a 51-year-old machinist who was charged with murder and targeted by prosecutors for execution. After more than a year behind bars, Armstrong was released in August – his admission of guilt contradicted by an alibi. As similar cases are exposed nationwide by modern crime forensics, the impact reaches beyond a few defendants. False confessions undermine America’s justice system. They allow real perpetrators to get away with murder, perhaps to kill again. They squander tax dollars. They leave survivors with empty justice.
All of that happened in the Armstrong case, says the Republic. A 167-page interview transcript shows that Armstrong didn’t have a clue why Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies picked him up June 9, 2003. He didn’t know they were investigating a triple-homicide that occurred five years earlier. Armstrong made clear he wanted to cooperate. He blithely answered questions about his life, voluntarily disclosing his problems with drugs and alcohol. Then detective Kim Seagraves announced that witnesses and evidence placed Armstrong at the crime scene. Armstrong said he had never been to the area and was with his mother in Portland, Ore., that weekend. “My investigation clearly shows beyond any reasonable doubt that you were present when something bad happened,” Seagraves said. “I was? How?” Armstrong asked. “I wasn’t there, I swear to God I wasn’t there.”