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False Confessions and Wrongful Convictions

Why on earth would anyone admit to a crime, especially a major crime such as a murder, she or he hadn’t committed? Does this really happen? What sort of personality can be coerced into making a confession about a terrible act he or she hasn’t committed? Sometimes the psychology of police interrogation is very troubling, particularly when a highly compliant or suggestible suspect is involved.

Case Study – Wrongful Conviction in Ireland’s IRA Bomb Attacks

Did you ever watch In the Name of the Father with Daniel Day Lewis? If not I suggest that you do. It is about pp_1_a_lthe controversial criminal case of four men who were dubbed the “Guildford Fourby the Guildford Press and wrongly convicted for the bombing of several pubs that killed five people and injured 65 in Guildford, Ireland. Lewis played the role of Gerry Conlon, who died in 2014 at the age of 60. His father Guiseppe Conlon  died while serving his sentence.The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but didn’t win.

As with all Hollywood films, the Guildford Four was somewhat fictionalized. A young woman named Caroline was created and included in the Guildford Four although in reality she didn’t exist. However most of the plot development was true and based on Conlon’s autobiography: Proved Innocent: The Story of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four,  In this case the British police psychologically and physically brutalized the four men who were seen in the area of the bombings for several hours, denying them sleep, food and water, and on occasion, beating them harshly. The police were determined to get a conviction, even though they knew these people were not responsible for the bombings. After fifteen years in prison three of the four surviving men were released, although they had already finished their sentences. Their confessions are an example of coerced compliance.

In 73% of major crime cases juries convicted people on the basis of a confession alone, even when these confessions were false and the nature of the confessions were called into play during the trial. Many people simply cannot accept that a person would admit to something he or she didn’t do.”A normal person doesn’t crack for something that he didn’t do,” a juror remarked.  Yet “normal” and abnormal people do confess to something she or he hasn’t done. What type of person does this?

Compliance Suggestibility – this is a person who is easily manipulated. Police falsely promise the suspect her freedom if she will just admit her guilt and sign an affidavit. Once the suspect does so, she is arrested and taken into custody.

Delusions; Disorders – Another type of suspect who confesses falsely to a crime often suffers from delusions and perhaps may have a disorder, such as a mental illness or a personality disorder.

Age – a very young person can be highly vulnerable to police interrogation. He also believes that if they falsely confess to a crime the police will release him and he can return home to his parents. The Peter Reilly case, where the 18-year-old falsely confessed to the rape, murder and decapitation of his mother, is a tragic example of this type of false confession.

Case Study – Peter Reilly
In 1973, teenager Peter Reilly found his mother’s battered body on the floor of their cottage in Canaan, Conn., after returning home from a church youth meeting. Barbara Gibbons had been sexually mutilated and nearly decapitated. Connecticut state troopers found Reilly’s demeanor odd,(wouldn’t anyone act odd when s/he had just discovered her mother’s body?),  and he was taken to detectives for questioning. A failed polygraph examination convinced investigators’ belief that Reilly attacked his mother, yet polygraphs are known to be notoriously unreliable. Hence the reason polygraph results cannot be used in court. In Reilly’s case, police used the lie detector’s findings as a hammer against the boy during an eight-hour interrogation.

123CaptureReilly was finally convinced that he may have blacked out and attacked his mother. The defense argued that the confession was the product of police manipulation and brainwashing, however that false confession held sway with the jury who convicted Reilly of first-degree manslaughter in April 1974.  Reilly was exonerated after it was disclosed that prosecutors withheld a trooper’s statement that placed Reilly far from the crime scene during the time police said he was attacking his mother. A judge concluded that “a grave injustice” had been committed against Reilly and vacated the conviction with prejudice, meaning Reilly could never be retried for the still-unsolved crimes.

Reilly recently signed an online petition to release a young man who may have been falsely convicted from prison.”They would rather leave someone innocent in jail than, God forbid, have the public image that they might have made a mistake,” Reilly said. Reilly’s confession is an example of a coerced internalized confession.

Sometimes there are systems in place that can help guard against false confessions. For instance, in some regions a young person must have her parents or a lawyer or both present during a police interrogation. Adults also have the right to an attorney during an interrogation.

Three Types of False Confessions
Voluntary – given without any pressure. The rationale is internal for that person. It reflects an inherent vulnerability in the suspect. Usually these suspects express a psychopathy wherein the individual confuses what is fact and what is fantasy. You may be familiar with this concept. Police often withhold details about a crime from the press in order to weed out false confessions from “oddballs” who are seeking attention.

An example of this phenomenon was the false confession provided by the American teacher John Mark Karr in the Jonbenet Ramsey murder case.  Inconsistencies in Karr’s story proved that he could not be the murderer. Karr claims he drugged JonBenet, had sex with the child, then killed her. However an autopsy blood screening showed no drugs or alcohol were in the child’s body. And although Karr reportedly claimed the sexually assaulted JonBenet, no semen was found on her body. A blurring of reality and a pathological need for attention caused Karr to admit to killing the little girl when in fact, he had not.

dalia faceFifty false confessions, including one from a woman, were offered in the notorious Black Dahlia murder in 1949. Most likely these people were loners with few friends, no family, and were socially isolated.

Coerced Compliant – these people make false confessions to escape or avoid forceful interrogations or even to gain a reward. This person views the short-term benefits as outweighing the long-term stressors of prosecution. This behaviour is stronger in a longer investigation than a shorter interrogation. The Conlon case, above, is one such example. These false confessions may be about less serious crimes than major criminal activity. This person however isn’t blurring reality and fantasy. She knows she is innocent but wishes to avoid or end a lengthy interrogation.

Coerced Internalized – the innocent person comes to believe he committed the crime as a result of the interrogation. He may be left to believe that he has blocked out the memory of committing the crime. Sounds impossible? Consider children who dissociate in order to escape trauma, or adults who repress memories in order to function in as healthy a manner as possible. Where a false confession is concerned, it is possible for an individual to be left to believe she has committed a crime then to internalize it and create a scenario where there is none.

Billy Wayne Cope was false accused of raping and murdering his 12-year-old daughter Amanda Cope. Cope was adamant that he hadn’t committed the crime but he was brought to a police station and held for twenty-four hours. BAR-master315During this time he was isolated from his family and without legal counsel. Cope mused out loud whether a person could commit such an act and not remember it, something the detectives had suggested to him the night before. Cope offered a fully story about how he molested and killed his daughter even though he had done no such thing. Later it was discovered that the semen found on Amanda’s body belonged to a sex offender in the neighbourhood named James Sanders. Cope’s wife died during the interrogation and she went to her grave believing her husband had raped and murdered their child.

Case Study – Damon Thibodeaux
Damon Thibodeaux was a 22-year-old deckhand in July 1996. He went out with several of his Jefferson Parish, Louisiana neighbors on the evening of July 19, 1996, to look for his 14 year old cousin Crystal Champaigne, who hadn’t been seen since going to the supermarket earlier that afternoon. Police began interviewing people who had been with Crystal before she disappeared. An officer was interviewing Thibodeaux who had been at the Champaigne’s home when Crystal left for the store. when he was told that her body had been found, partially naked and strangled with a cord. At that point, a homicide detective took over the questioning. Damon said he knew nothing about the murder and agreed to a polygraph test, which police said he failed. After nearly nine hours of interrogation, Damon gave a recorded statement confessing to consensual and non-consensual sex with the victim and then to beating and murdering her.

fac6b710-4c18-482f-9e05-5bb6951f3e7bThere were several inconsistencies between his statement and the facts of the crime. There was no evidence of semen in the victim’s body and that Thibodeaux’s claim to have strangled his cousin using a white or gray speaker wire from his car contradicted the truth that it was a red electrical cord. Thibodeaux was arrested, charged with rape and murder, and finally allowed to eat and rest, after which he recanted. Although forensic examiners could find no evidence of semen in the victim’s body, a detective theorized that a sexual assault could have occurred and that post-mortem maggot activity had consumed and degraded the evidence. Additionally, two eyewitnesses testified that they saw someone pacing near where the body was found. They both selected Thibodeaux from a photo array and identified him in court.  Based on his recorded confession, Thibodeaux was sentenced to death and spent 15 years on death row and 16 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. An expert in false confessions concluded that the combination of exhaustion from the overnight search and long interrogation, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty led Thibodeaux to falsely confess. Damon lost 16 years of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

In 2007, the eyewitnesses who identified Thibodeaux as the man they had seen pacing near the crime scene stated that they had already seen Thibodeaux’s photo in the media before the identification procedure. They stated that the sighting had in fact occurred the day after the body was found, when Thibodeaux was already in custody. DNA found on the victim’s body confirmed it belonged to a man other than Thibodeaux. The reinvestigation further confirmed that Thibodeaux’s confession was false in every aspect. The prosecution’s own expert concluded prior to the trial that Thibodeaux confessed based on fear of the death penalty, but this information was never shared with the defense. Thibodeaux’s false confession is an example of coerced compliance.

One in four confessions from individuals are false confessions.

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