Inconvenient Truths: Why False Confessions Still Warp U.S. Justice

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central park 5

Photo courtesy PBS

False confessions “remain a serious problem in the criminal justice system,” as police, prosecutors and courts continue to ignore best practices that could ensure suspects are given the full presumption of innocence by authorities, according to a paper in the Miami Race & Social Justice Law Review.

Despite a growing body of evidence showing that people can be pressured into admitting crimes they didn’t commit, the competitive “win-at-all costs” culture that prevails in many prosecutors’ offices around the country has distorted US justice, wrote the paper’s author, Craig J. Trocino, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, and director of the Miami Law Innocence Clinic.

While the public believes that police could coerce only a child or a mentally disabled person into falsely admitting to a crime, that couldn’t be further from the truth, Trocino wrote.

Citing statistics that show 27 per cent of the 325 individuals exonerated through DNA testing since 1989 had originally confessed to their crimes, Trocino wrote that such cases represent only the “tip of the iceberg”—even as few authorities are willing to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

“The vast majority of the criminal justice system will not consider the likelihood that a confession is false, absent being forced to by DNA.”

He charged that although the available evidence suggests that false confessions are a persistent hazard, there has been no “concerted effort to do something about the problem.”

The best practices now available to police and prosecutors include mandatory videotaping of all interrogations and the use of “more enlightened” forms of interrogation than the traditional and widely used “Reid Technique,” which involves drawn-out interview sessions, often-aggressive or hostile questioning, and even the use of false evidence to entrap the accused.

Wider Harm

The harm caused by the extraction of false confessions extends beyond wrongful conviction and imprison to society as a whole, Trocino wrote.

“Police often close a case as solved once a confession is obtained, and forgo all other avenues of investigation, even if the confession is wholly inconsistent with or contradictory to the evidence collected,” he added.

He cited the notorious 1989 case in New York of the “Central Park Five,” soon to be portrayed in a Netflix film. In that case, five youths aged 14 to 16 confessed to being accomplices in the rape of a young woman jogger. Another individual, Matias Reyes, was later imprisoned for the crime, but the boys’ convictions were not vacated until 2002 through DNA evidence.

The wrongful convictions of the boys effectively left Reyes free to commit several other rapes and a murder until he was finally brought to justice.

The Central Park Five “confessions” were extracted largely by police lying that the others had already confessed, Trocino wrote.

But that hasn’t stopped some people from continuing to assert the boys’ guilt, most notably Donald Trump. Long before he ran for president, Trump took out full page ads calling for the boys’ execution and he claimed, even after Reyes’ conviction, that the “young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”

Such biased attitudes are built into a competitive justice system that rewards prosecutors and judges for quick resolution of crimes that shake society, Trocino wrote.

“The zeal to win overtakes the admonition to seek justice,” he said.

Despite serious efforts made by jurisdictions around the country to change their approach, Trocino offered a bleak assessment of the prospects for change. He believes that only a cultural transformation of the system itself would have a broader impact.

“In order to meet the goal of seeking justice and improving its administration, the notion of winning at all costs must subside,” he wrote.

His paper can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Andrea Cipriano. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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