February 21, 2014
Police Coercion Cited in Order for Retrial in Upstate New York Killing

This is a unanimous pro-defense ruling from New York’s highest court.  This is like finding a unicorn in the gumdrop forest.  It involves the admission of a coerced confession into evidence during a murder trial:

Detectives threatened to arrest Mr. Thomas’s wife if he did not take responsibility for the baby’s death. They repeatedly told him he would not be charged with a crime if he confessed to abusing his son. Finally, they told Mr. Thomas that his son’s survival depended on his remembering what he might have done to cause a brain injury, even though the baby was already brain-dead.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, writing for the seven-member Court of Appeals, said those techniques, taken together, amounted to psychological coercion that violated Mr. Thomas’s constitutional rights.

“What transpired during defendant’s interrogation was not consonant with, and indeed completely undermined, defendant’s right not to incriminate himself — to remain silent,” the judge wrote.

The court stopped short of setting down a hard and fast rule about when police trickery crosses the line into coercion, saying only that “in extreme forms, it may be.”

Still, the ruling is an important guidepost for the police and judges in a rapidly evolving debate over false confessions, interrogation techniques and the taping of police interviews, experts on criminal procedure and false confessions said.

“What this decision does is give courts guidance on what constitutes an involuntary confession,” said Dorothy Heyl, a lawyer at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy who represented the Innocence Network.

Art Glass, the acting district attorney in Rensselaer County, where Mr. Thomas was prosecuted, said the ruling was likely to force police departments to be more careful during interviews.

“The court didn’t provide any bright-line rule or set down any clear boundaries you can’t cross,” Mr. Glass said. “I think what it tells them is to be cautious, more cautious than they have been.”

Mr. Thomas was convicted in 2009 of murdering his son, Matthew, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, a decision upheld at the Appellate Division. The strongest evidence against Mr. Thomas, 31, was his confession that, days earlier, he had thrown the child forcefully down onto his bed.

Money quote:

That admission came after *nine and a half hours of interrogation,* when a police sergeant, Adam Mason, told Mr. Thomas that doctors needed to know what had happened in order to save the baby’s life. At the time, the child had already been declared brain-dead.

Emphasis added.  Yet another example of why it is never a good idea to talk to the police.  They can lie, cheat, and steal their way to a conviction.  You cannot trust a single thing they tell you.  Every question they ask is geared towards building a case against you.  That’s it.  Adrian P. Thomas found that out the hard way.  And he’s been sitting in a jail cell since 2009 for his mistake.

August 6, 2013

Any good criminal-defense attorney will tell you to say four words if you are about to be arrested for murder: I want a lawyer.

This is simple advice and should be easy to remember during an interrogation, but not everyone recalls it under the pressure of police questioning. Some people make matters worse for themselves in the face of strong evidence by providing an alibi or identifying another person as the perpetrator. Many succumb to the wiles of homicide detectives and implicate themselves to some lesser degree in the crime, heeding the admonition that a partial loss is better than going down for the whole thing. Some accused people are tricked into confessing, and some confess to crimes they did not commit. A certain percentage, worn down by conscience or questioning or the simple desire to get the interrogation over with, provide a detailed and honest explanation for what they did.


The Confessions Of Innocent Men

January 24, 2013

It turns out it’s actually not all that hard to get a confession out of an innocent person. The same high-pressure psychological techniques meant to wear down a guilty suspect will make a lot of innocent people confess to something they didn’t do. Since innocent people are more likely than criminals to waive their right to remain silent, they’re put in a high-stress situation where they’re not even clear about what they’re being charged with. They also may feel guilt for some unrelated reason (they saw the crime and failed to report or stop it, for example). So, they say whatever they need to say to make the interrogation end.

For instance, one popular interrogation technique has the interrogator give a monologue claiming he already knows the subject is guilty, and then follows nine scripted steps to get a signed confession. It’s incredibly effective — it gets guilty suspects to confess nearly 84 percent of the time. Oh, and it gets innocent people to confess approximately 43 percent of the time. Add hinting at fake evidence, and you can up that false confession rate to about 94 percent.


Lillian Marx

Let’s take up that last sentence a few more times:

"Add hinting at fake evidence, and you can up that false confession rate to about 94 percent."

"Add hinting at fake evidence, and you can up that false confession rate to about 94 percent."

"Add hinting at fake evidence, and you can up that false confession rate to about 94 percent."

So, that leaves the question: how often to interrogators hint at fake evidence during interrogations?

If you guessed often, you’re on the right track.  If you guess quite often, you’d be correct.

Related: Perillo & Kassin (2010) (discussing the basis of the 94 percent figure).

December 3, 2012
Why Do False Confessions Occur?

A good primer from Douglas Keene and Rita R. Handrich:

When someone confesses to committing a crime, it only stands to reason that they are guilty. After all, why would they confess if they didn’t do it (Adams, 2011)? The common sense of this is so powerful that juries tend to weigh the confession (even if recanted after legal counsel is provided) as the single most compelling piece of evidence. Saul Kassin lists the three major forms of false confessions:

1. Voluntary confessions: This is a confession made to protect someone else, made because you are delusional and believe you did the crime, or made to attract attention to yourself. Examples include the 200 people who confessed to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, or more recently, John Mark Karr’s confession to killing JonBenet Ramsey or Amanda Knox’s false confession to and subsequent conviction for murdering her roommate in Italy. [Kassin says the police do a good job of identifying these false confessions and they are unlikely to result in wrongful convictions.] 

2. Internalized false confessions: This type of confession can happen when interrogation eventually persuades the accused they did something that they objectively know did not occur. If the suspect is a juvenile, mentally handicapped, experiencing extreme grief, or sleep-deprived–under the pressure of the interrogation session, they can actually come to believe they committed the crime and thus confess. [This type of confession can and has resulted in wrongful convictions.]

3. Compliant false confessions: Finally, the largest category of false confessions occurs when (even though the confessor knows he or she is innocent) they break down and give a confession to escape the interrogation process itself. [Kassin says the boys confessing to raping the Central Park Jogger are an example of this sort of confession. They were tried, found guilty in 1990 and imprisoned until the actual rapist confessed in 2002 and DNA evidence showed him to be the real perpetrator.]

January 19, 2012
12-Year Old's Coerced Homicide Confession Stirs Debate

Why would a team of interrogators need to “interview” a boy for 4+ hours to get a confession?

During his hours at the police station, it was the boy versus a local Camden police supervisor, a detective, a state police investigator and a deputy prosecuting attorney.

Investigators initially recorded their interrogation, when Thomas denied harming his sister 36 times.

When Thomas asked for something to eat, the recording stopped and remained off for 31/2 hours.

When it was turned back on, Thomas gave a stoic and detailed confession.

I wonder what they said to him that changed his mind:

In a recent interview in Camden, Thomas, now 18, named who he blames for his sister’s death and described why he gave what he insists was a false confession.

"I was terrified," he said. "They wouldn’t believe me and they said they would give me the death penalty."

At 12, Thomas never could have faced a death sentence, but he didn’t know that. Nor did he know that police are allowed to lie to get a confession.

Sounds like ethical police work to me.  Good thing he had an attorney with him to let him know that he does not he is not legally obligated to talk to the police.


September 28, 2011
A Review Of One Decade's Worth Of Murder Cases In A Single Illinois County Found 247 Instances In Which The Defendants' Self-Incriminating Statements Were Thrown Out By The Court Or Found By A Jury To Be Insufficiently Convincing For Conviction.

Those are all false confessions.  Undoubtedly coerced by police investigators.

UPDATE: this paper suggests that a particular 9-step interrogation technique convinced innocent people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit at a rate of 43%.

fourty-three percent.

September 26, 2011
False Confessions: "People Have A Strange And Worrying Tendency To Admit To Things They Have Not, In Fact, Done."

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