Why people confess to crimes they didn't do
Prosecutors may vacate sentences of five teens in Central Park jogger case.
The Central Park jogger case - one of the most chilling in recent New York history - is about to become one of the most controversial.Skip to next paragraph
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Thursday, the Manhattan district attorney is expected to ask the State Supreme Court to vacate the convictions of the five young men who confessed to the 1989 brutal assault and rape. This summer, a serial rapist in prison on another charge also confessed. But unlike the five young African-American men, he gave an accurate account of the assault, and his DNA matches evidence found on the jogger.
Thursday's court hearing is the culmination of a high-stakes drama that calls into question the tactics of the New York police investigators as well as the city's legendary prosecutor's office, at a time when the nation's entire justice system is under increased scrutiny for racial disparities. But it also raises the more baffling question as to why people would willingly confess to crimes they did not commit.
Experts say it's far more common than one would expect. During lengthy interrogations, police often lead suspects to believe they have no other options but to confess. The most vulnerable to such tactics are the young and those with very low IQs.
"It's a reaction to a feeling of utter hopelessness and despair that virtually anything I say about my innocence is going to be ignored, and my only way out of this interrogation room is to accede to the interrogators' demands," says Steven Drizin, a professor at Chicago's Northwestern University School of Law and an expert on false confessions. "The whole purpose of police interrogation tactics is to convince a suspect that it is in his best interest to confess to a crime."
Since 1992, the Innocence Project has helped win exonerations in 116 cases based on DNA evidence. In 27 of those cases, the defendant had confessed.
Professor Drizin himself has a databank with more than 100 cases in which confessions were proved false in the past 10 years. He believes that's the "tip of the iceberg" because his data was gathered from press reports, and many coerced confessions are proved false before trial.
The high-profile nature of the jogger case is fueling a national effort to prevent coerced confessions and police misconduct by requiring that all interrogations be videotaped. Currently only Minnesota and Alaska have such laws, but more than a dozen states are now considering them.
"Part of the problem in the Central Park jogger case is that we don't know what went on for hours in the interrogation rooms before they confessed," says Nina Morrison, the executive director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization in New York.
But some police experts caution that videotape is not infallible. Joseph McNamara of Stanford University's Hoover Institution notes that during the 1960s, New York required that all interrogations be taped. But the policy was abandoned because it was easy to turn the recorder off, or take the suspect into another room when a detective wanted to use controversial tactics.