Prepared by the Research Committee

On Thursday, February 19th, 2015, SPEAR will host Raymond Santana, a member of the Central Park Five, a group of men who were wrongly convicted of rape in the year 1989, only to have their convictions vacated in 2002. After a woman was raped and beaten in Central Park on the night of April 19th 1989, New York City Police apprehended Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam, all aged 14 to 16, and interrogated them for 72 hours. Faced with enormous pressure from Police, false promises of safe return to their homes, combined with the exhaustion and confusion of being a teenager in police custody, the 5 boys confessed to raping the victim, despite all five being completely innocent. Their false confessions were used during trial, and the boys were given sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years.

Intuitively, confessions seem to be a rigorous form of evidence, but stories like that of the Central Park Five show how easy it is for someone, when placed in the right environment and under the right pressures, to do something dramatically against their interests. In fact, false confessions are a leading cause of wrong convictions, accounting for 30% of wrongful convictions each year.[1] Let’s examine the mechanics of how false confessions lead to the incarceration of men and women every year.

Academic study on the nature of false confessions has revealed three “pathways” that lead someone to admit when they are innocent.

The first “pathway” towards false confession is called misclassification error, which is when suspect is immediately perceived as guilty by the interrogating officer. As a result, police continue to interrogate a suspect even after he or she has denied guilt. This causes persistence on the part of the interrogator, heightening the pressure that may cause someone to decide that confessing is in their best interests.

Misclassification” can take many forms. Police may be racially biased and continue to interrogate black and brown men because they fit the officer’s perception of who perpetrated the crime. In the case of the Central Park Five, the profiles of the five boys played into public fears about roaming bands of dangerous, “wilding youths.”

Officers may also presume guilt of a suspect by believing themselves to be “human lie detectors.”[2] As Richad Leo and Steven Drizin state in their 2012 paper, The Three Errors, Pathways to False Confessions, “there is no human behavior or psychological response that is unique to deception and therefore no tell-tale behavioral signs of deception or truth telling.”[3] Police officers can accurately predict a lie only 45% to 60% of the time, however police interrogators continue to believe that they know when someone is lying, causing them to unnecessarily zero-in on certain suspects.[4] Disproving the myth of the canny, intuitive, and unbiased police interrogator is a necessary step in lowering the number of false confessions.

The second route towards a false confessions is what Richard Leo and Steven Drizin term “coercion errors.” These errors are the easiest to understand because they align most closely with our popular conception of a police interrogation. Suspects may confess to avoid physical harm or discomfort. However, a police interrogation can lead to a false confession even without denial of basic human rights. Experts believe that any interrogation beyond 6 hours long is coercive. After that point, a suspect might be willing to do anything to stop the police from questioning them.[5] All five members of the Central Park Five tell how they were willing to falsely confess to the crime just so they could go home, a scenario repeated over and over again in the study of the false confessions of Juveniles.

Furthermore, during questioning, police can make it appear to the suspect that the state has an overwhelming case against them by inventing false evidence. If a suspect believes that they will be proven guilty in court no matter what they say, it makes sense to falsely confess in order to reduce his or her future sentence. In the case Central Park Five, police told Yusef Salaam that they had found his fingerprints on the jogger’s shorts when they did not. As a result Yusef thought that his best case of action was to falsely confess.

Juveniles are especially vulnerable to coercive police methods and false confessions. Juveniles make up a highly disproportionate share, 63%, of all exonerations based on false confessions. Youth need special protections against abuses in police interrogations, and they should not be able to waive their right to counsel before entering the interrogation room.  

Finally, false conviction can be the result of “contamination error,” which is where a confession becomes more believable because it includes information that only the perpetrator would be able to know. The central park five all describe how even though they did not know the details of the crime, officer “fed them” information, including the way the jogger was dressed and the names of the other boys involved in the case, letting their false confessions become more believable. As a result, jurors believed their confessions to be more genuine than they were.

Contamination errors can be accidental or intentional on the part of the police. Police need better training to avoid releasing non-public information. Interrogations should be recorded in order to trace the source of all information and to place increased scrutiny on officers in the interrogation room.

 

For more information on false confessions, see The Innocence Project at http://www.innocenceproject.org/understand/False-Confessions.php  

 

[1] Leo, Richard A. and Drizin, Steven A., The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World. North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 82, 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1134094

[2] Leo, Richard A. and Drizin, Steven A., The Three Errors: Pathways to False Confession and Wrongful Conviction (2010). G. Daniel Lassiter & Christian Meissner, eds., Police Interrogations and False Confessions: Current Research, Practice, and Policy Recommendations (American Psychological Association, 2010); Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2012-04. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1542901

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Leo and Drizin, 2004

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