Interrogations and (False) Confessions

[Hat Tip: Dave Shapiro, who posted this article on the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association listserv.]

UTEP hosted a conference called “Interrogations & Confessions: A Conference Exploring Current Research, Practice, and Policy,” last week. The Rio Grande Guardian wrote an article** about it.

The recent spate of DNA exonerations, usually in death penalty cases, has understandably increased interest in the previously widely disbelieved phenomenon of false confessions. The Innocence Project reports that fully one quarter of wrongful convictions involve false confessions:

False confessions and incriminating statements lead to wrongful convictions in 25 percent of cases. More than 350 jurisdictions now record interrogations.

False confessions are another leading cause of wrongful convictions. Twenty-five percent of cases involve a false confession or incriminating statement made by the defendant.

Of those cases, 35 percent were 18 or under and/or developmentally disabled. The Innocence Project encourages police departments to electronically record all custodial interrogations in their entirety in order to prevent coercion and to provide an accurate record of the proceedings.

More than 350 jurisdictions have voluntarily adopted policies to record interrogations. State supreme courts have taken action in Alaska, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia require the taping of interrogations in homicide cases.

From the Rio Grande Guardian article:

Professor Ray Bull, from the University of Leicester, spoke on what really happens in police interviews with suspects. He helped to develop reforms in the United Kingdom. That country responded to problems within the criminal justice system and changed the way interrogations were conducted. Tape recording of all interviews with suspects is now mandatory.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Meissner, who reported that in areas where interrogations are tape recorded, everyone is happy. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police who are often accused of using force, all can rely on the tape instead of someone’s word. There are fewer expert fees and court costs involved when interrogations are taped, he added.

So, the UK has it right. At least when it comes to capital cases in the United States, we need to go to an absolute rule: Eligibility for the Death Penalty Requires a Videotaped Confession.

We would need rules and jury instructions as well regarding the circumstances surrounding any ‘confessions’.

I assume this would satisfy folks like Jeffrey Deustch, who has been polite enough to engage me and other readers of the blog in a death penalty debate recently.

People who are less concerned with the ‘accuracy rate’ when it comes to the ultimate punishment will remain unconvincible.  But in the meantime, anyone else want to add Texas to that Innocence Project list?

[** Given the url, which ends with “/features_story.asp?story_no=1” I fear this link may go dead. If so, maybe you can use the search feature in the future to look for the story.]

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Long Beach Criminal Defense Attorney - November 18, 2007 2:45 PM

False Confessions are a big problem in California as well. Your article exposes a hot issue that needs to be addressed.

San Fernando - November 28, 2007 11:01 PM

In the area I practice the LAPD have started a pilot program to use recording on all statements by criminal suspects. Sadly, the govenor in California recently vetoed an attempt to require all confessions to be recorded.

donna - January 18, 2008 3:27 PM

The question as to recording should also include 'when,' a recording starts. If an officer does a knock and talk, but has proceeded to a person's home with suspicions of guilt, the recording should be on before a conversation begins. This does not contribute to any, incarceration or seizure of an individual. Failure to do so, should the defendant claim, including with a witness, that an officer told them they were perjure themselves under threat of harm, would then invalidate the tape, regardless of what was said. Of course, should an officer do this, they will most likely lie about it. Now comes the question then of what is ethical. If an officer may lie about what was said off tape - then there should be no, 'off-tape,' and an officer should approach each interrogation with a tape on. I don't see why this is a big issue? If a cop is being honest and doing their job, then what's the major problem? Furthermore, comes the question of miranda rights. Whether or not a person knows they are being recorded, should they not know their mirandas or what the consequences of their conversation be, to truthfully protect an individual's rights and affirm the accuracy of a testimony, a recording should be used, and a person should be informed of their mirandas immediately. In a case where mirandas are not read right away, a recording should only include the part starting from the mirandas, on. I can tell you in Oregon, cops are trained to first talk off tape, use any tactic they deem necessary to illicit the response they are looking for, begin a recording once they begin to get that response, then read a person their miranda rights and confirm what was said prior. This is tantamount to extortion by law enforcement - and is currently permissable in courts - regardless of the punishment. For any criminal charge where incarceration is a possibility - a recording should always be mandatory.

mary - September 26, 2008 7:15 AM

my nephew a.d.d and has a nerves condition,we proved the only witness to hearsay was lieing..in court .and that a taped confession was all they have .to put him in jail and the tape is all they need to do this.the tape was made with a person present that not law inforcer while the tape was made she ask some of the question.not only that the person that accused him a rape .was court order to be there fail twice to show up.dosn't a court order mean any thing

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