We like to think that if someone confesses to a crime, then it means they must have committed the crime.
It makes sense because it is hard to fathom admitting to something that you did not do; especially when admitting to a crime carries dire consequences. Confessions are given great weight in the criminal justice system and law enforcement spend a lot of energy to try and get suspects to confess. But the reality is people do make false confessions. And our criminal justice system is inadequate at dealing with this problem.
Why would people admit to crimes they didn’t commit? It seems outside of understanding that someone would say he/she did something wrong when it wasn’t true, but the Innocence Project reports that 25% of those later freed by DNA evidence had confessed to the crime they were serving time for. False or coerced confessions are much more commonplace than many think.
Take the case of Damon Thibodeaux, from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He confessed to the rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin Crystal Champaigne. He was sentenced to death for the crime he never did, and spent 15 years on death row before being exonerated by DNA evidence. The circumstances surrounding his confession, which he immediately recanted, are the same that many in police custody face.
CONDITIONS LEADING TO FALSE CONFESSION
Many false confessions are driven by a belief that cooperating with the police will get the accused out of the situation faster, but there are many other factors that can lead to a false confession. Damon confessed to killing Crystal after a polygraph that he was told he failed and NINE hours of interrogation. After being allowed to eat and rest, Damon took it all back. He proclaimed his innocence, but it was too late. Damon spent a decade and a half on death row before anyone believed him.
Other circumstances that can lead to a false confession include coercion by the police, diminished mental capacity of the accused, or a complete misunderstanding of the situation.
QUESTIONABLE POLICE TACTICS
Coercion by police departments is common. The suspect may be led to believe the police have evidence against him/her, or that they can confess and get a lighter sentence or avoid the death penalty. And the police don’t have to tell the truth about what evidence they have. The Innocent project reports that “it is perfectly legal for law enforcement to employ deception or trickery in the interrogation room”. So telling a person he failed a polygraph, like happened to Damon Thibodeaux, is an acceptable practice.
Intoxication, diminished mental capacity, and misunderstanding of the situation are also circumstances that can be exploited to obtain a confession.
Confessions by a child are even trickier when it comes to false confessions. Children have been taught that the police are their friends, and they want to help and cooperate. This, along with the circumstances mentioned above, all played into the now-famous confession of Brendan Dassey, as seen in Netflix’s show Making a Murderer.
THE FALSE CONFESSION OF BRENDAN DASSEY
Dassey was a teenager when he confessed to helping his uncle Steven Avery rape, stab, shoot and then dispose of photographer Teresa Halbach, whose murder is the basis of the hit Netflix Documentary Making a Murderer.
Dassey, who was only sixteen at the time of his false confession, has an IQ near the range for an intellectual disability. It is questionable if he understood the charges against him, and despite the fact that there was no case against him based on evidence presented or the timeline police came up with, Dassey was convicted and jailed. The only “proof” investigators had was his coerced confession.
But in the end, Dassey’s false confession is because “they simply keep wearing him down until he tells them what they want to hear”. The vast majority of the confession was actually thought up by the investigators and then fed to Dassey. Transcripts of the four-hour interrogation, both the parts portrayed in Making a Murderer and the parts the documentary left out, show how the teenage Dassey is coerced into confession a murder he likely had nothing to do with. And for those with stronger stomachs, the investigation videos are now online, and they make grim viewing.
FALSE CONFESSION IS NOTHING NEW
Another, less famous, case of false confession is that of Darrell Parker. In 1955, in Nebraska, Parker came home from work and found his wife Nancy dead in their bedroom. She had been raped, beaten, and murdered. Parker was brought into the police station and came face-to-face with John Reid, a Chicago polygraph expert who had a reputation of being able to elicit confessions. Reid hooked Parker up to a lie detector and every time the needle moved, Reid told Parker he was lying.
As Parker’s time in the interrogation room stretched into hours, Reid explained to Parker how the situation could have been. Maybe Nancy had denied her husband sex until the day he decided to take what was his. Parker confessed after nine hours of interrogation by John Reid. Even though he later recanted, he was sentenced to life in prison.
TRAINING IN FALSE CONFESSIONS: THE REID TECHNIQUE
John Reid made a lot of money out of the Reid technique, and now Reid & Associates is teaching it to others, mostly law enforcement. Douglas Starr chronicles his training in the Reid Technique in Boston. For $580, it teachers interrogation tactics designed to elicit confessions.
Saul Kassin, a leading expert in the field of false confessions, reports being able to get nearly 50% of people to confess to something they didn’t do in psychology experiments. And according to one retired FBI Agent, the Reid-style training “creates a tendency to see lies where they may not exist”. Though there is much concern about this technique, its use continues today.
As for Darrell Parker, he was pardoned in 1991 and exonerated in 2011, fifty-six years after Nancy’s death. Brendan Dassey is still waiting for justice. The list of proven false confessions is sobering, and it’s evident that something must be done to temper this ongoing problem.