Friday, February 22, 2013

Guilty But Innocent


In November 1992, seventeen year old Daniel Taylor was awaken out of his sleep by police and brought to the police station for questioning.  Almost three and a half hours later Daniel Taylor confessed to a double murder.  The problem here is that Daniel had an alibi, one that was later confirmed by the Assistant State Attorney.  Daniel was locked up in a jail cell on the night of the murders making it impossible for him to have committed this crime.  Yet, he was still tried and convicted.

Wrongful convictions happen and it is the epitome of injustice.  False confessions contribute to approximately twenty-five percent of all wrongful convictions.  Our criminal justice system is built on the notion that you are innocent until proven guilty.  However, once someone falsely confesses the presumption of innocence is taken away and they are not likely to get a fair trial.  There are several factors that contribute to false confessions including but not limited to: (1) contamination of the interrogation, (2) lying about evidence, (3) the length of the interrogation, and (4) using psychological methods on juveniles and cognitively impaired individuals who more impressionable and suggestible. 

The contamination of an interrogation occurs when law enforcement officials disclose facts of the case during the interrogation.  When the interrogator has disclosed facts of the case to the suspect it makes it hard to determine whether the confession is valid or just a rehash of what the suspect learned during the interrogation.  Additionally, law enforcement officials routinely lie about false evidence to elicit confessions which can be extremely coercive and result in a false confession.  One of the reasons innocent people confess is because they believed that there was overwhelming evidence against them and confessing was the best alternative.  

Lengthy interrogations are another factor that increases the risk of false confessions.  There are several ways that a lengthy interrogation can increase these risks.  First, officers may unintentionally contaminate an interrogation due to exhaustion.  Officers, like suspects, become tired and exhausted after long hours.  Working on a lack of sleep could result in unintentional mistakes.  Furthermore, officers become frustrated when they have been questioning a suspect for several hours to no avail, this could lead to the use of improper and illegal tactics to elicit a confessions.  Additionally, suspects become exhausted making them more suggestible.  Furthermore, when a suspect is exhausted they just want to leave.  Consequently, suspects become more willing to say what the officer wants to hear in order to leave the interrogation room.  Juveniles are even more vulnerable to these factors.

The chances of eliciting a false confession increases when interrogating juveniles.  The court in Roper v. Simmons said that children do not have fully matured levels of judgment and are more susceptible to peer-pressure than adults.  Likewise, juveniles would be more susceptible to psychological interrogation techniques used to elicit confessions.  We have many laws in place which limit the rights of juveniles––juveniles are not allowed to vote, smoke cigarettes, or drink alcohol, nor can they get a driver’s license until they are sixteen.  As evident by these laws, we recognize the cognitive limitations of juveniles.  Juveniles are more impressionable and suggestible than adults; therefore they can be more easily coerced and more easily deceived into believing lies about evidence.

In addition to the above mentioned contributing factors, tunnel vision by police and prosecutors can also contribute to false confessions.  Tunnel vision occurs when police and prosecutors focus on one suspect early on in the investigation.  When a false confession occurs, it is hard for police and prosecutors to make sense of an innocent person confessing to a heinous crime that he did not commit.  The investigation stops or changes once a person confesses––law enforcement officials no longer investigate the crime; instead investigating the person with the goal of corroborating what was confessed to.  As a result of tunnel vision, police and prosecutors tend to put more weight to evidence that supports their theory and discount evidence that contradicts their theory.  Tunnel vision infects both the criminal investigation and post-conviction relief for the wrongfully convicted. 

False confessions are extremely difficult to overcome.  A false confession is an admission of guilt which is why false confessions are more likely to lead to wrongful convictions.  In essence, a false confession removes the presumption of innocence that criminal defendants are afforded in this country.  Furthermore, when a suspect confesses to a crime, he simply confirms what the police already believed.  Generally, after a suspect confesses the police and prosecution begin to build a case around that suspect and his confession.  The police and prosecution specifically look for evidence that coincides with what the suspect confessed, making it easy for them to overlook contradicting evidence.  We are logical beings; therefore if a person confesses to a crime with detail and we find evidence that contradicts one of his statements we will tend to believe that the contradicting evidence is wrong. 

Mr. Taylor has spent more than half of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit.  This injustice should not have happened.  The prosecutor in Mr. Taylor’s case confirmed his alibi before his trial, yet still proceeded with the trial.  “We may never know how many innocent people are in prison.  Instead, we ask how many more will have to be exonerated through the hard science of DNA before every jurisdiction in the country enacts reforms that can prevent this injustice in the first place.”  We cannot control every factor that may contribute to a false confession; however, we can control police and prosecutorial misconduct.  We must be proactive because, as we have illustrated, it is extremely difficult to overcome the weight of a false confession. 

Tonya Davis
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

4 comments:

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