This month a Montana judge released confessed murderer Barry Beach after ruling that new evidence in his case was “credible” and that he deserved a new trial, says USA Today. Beach, 49, served 28 years of a 100-year prison sentence for the 1979 murder of high school classmate Kim Nees, a crime he confessed to but has since maintained he didn’t commit. Illinois and New York also dealt this month with cases of confessions that defendants later said were coerced.
The question at the heart of each of these cases and dozens like them across the U.S. is: “Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?” Until recently, the idea that someone would falsely admit to a murder or a rape they didn’t commit was considered preposterous, says former Washington, D.C., homicide detective Jim Trainum. Law Prof. Steven Drizin of Northwestern University, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, studied more than 250 false confession cases. Nearly all start with the “misclassification error,” Drizin says. “When the police officer enters the interrogation room, they’ve already presumed that the suspect is guilty based on evidence that has been gathered in the course of the investigation. Often times, it’s based on little more than a hunch,” he says.