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.

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.

Not the answer?

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.

"New York experimented with a clock that kept running, but it didn't seem to be that successful either," he says. "If there's a glitch in the tape, it becomes suspicious. It's just not foolproof."

But others in law enforcement are advocates of taping because it gives them a complete record of their interrogations that can be shown to a jury.

In the Central Park case, the defense argued that the teens' confessions were coerced. The youngsters and their parents testified that they were led to believe they would be allowed to go home if they confessed.

Drizin says that's just one indication that the case offers a textbook example of how well-intentioned officers can end up producing false confessions. From the start, the police had a number of suspects who were vulnerable. They were all young, ages 14 to 16, and several of them had little experience dealing with police. Two of them had IQs below 90.

They were part of a pack of kids who were roaming the park that cool spring night randomly assaulting bikers, joggers, and a homeless person. (In addition to the jogger, the teens were convicted of assaulting eight other people that night.)

The jogger, a 28-year-old investment banker, had gone out for her nightly pass around the reservoir. She was found early the next morning beaten, raped, and barely alive in a muddy pool that was a significant distance from where the other attacks occurred.

By the time the teenagers had confessed, they been in custody for more than 28 hours, during which they were subjected to a full battery of police tactics. Most of the questioning was done without their parents' presence.

Drizin says one defendant was told his fingerprints were found on the jogger's clothes. He also says the teens were shown pictures of the crime scene and given the impression that if they confessed, they'd be treated as witnesses, not suspects. One teen too was told the others had implicated him and if he didn't confess, the police couldn't help him.

Wrong details

In the end, all five confessed, but the details they provided of where, when, and how it happened - even what the jogger was wearing - were wrong.

"What happened was a classic case of tunnel vision," says Drizin. "They were legitimate suspects who were in the park. Some may have been involved in other assaultive-type behavior. But police officers focused exclusively on these boys and became so wedded to the belief that these boys raped the jogger that they ignored numerous red flags that should have indicated they had the wrong suspects."

Some prosecutors and detectives still believe the boys were involved, regardless of the inconsistencies and the lack of physical evidence. They note that eyewitness accounts are often wrong, and one sure sign of a coerced confession is a set of accurate, completely consistent accounts.

Linda Fairstein, who led the sex-crimes unit at the time, argues the boys could have attacked the jogger, making her vulnerable to the rape - or could have even helped. And Mr. McNamara adds another note of caution. "Just because their DNA wasn't found on the jogger doesn't mean they're innocent," he says. "That's just as dangerous as saying they're guilty because they confessed."

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