Astonishingly, more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.
Damon Thibodeaux went out with several of his Jefferson Parish, Louisiana neighbors on the evening of July 19, 1996, to look for his 14 year old cousin Crystal Champaigne, who hadn't been seen since going to the supermarket earlier that afternoon. The search continued overnight and into the following afternoon, when police began interviewing people who had been with Crystal before she disappeared. An officer was interviewing Damon -- who had been at the Champaigne's home when Crystal left for the store -- when he was told that her body had been found, partially naked and strangled with a cord. At that point, a homicide detective took over the questioning.
Damon said he knew nothing about the murder and agreed to a polygraph test, which police said he failed. After nearly nine hours of interrogation, Damon gave a recorded statement confessing to consensual and non-consensual sex with the victim and then to beating and murdering her. There were numerous inconsistencies between his statement and the facts of the crime, including that there was no evidence of semen in the victim's body and that Damon claimed to have strangled her using a white or gray speaker wire from his car, not the red electrical cord which had been burned off from a cord hanging from a tree near the crime scene. Damon was arrested, charged with rape and murder, and finally allowed to eat and rest, after which he immediately recanted.
Based on his recorded confession, Damon Thibodeaux was sentenced to death and spent 15 years on death row and 16 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. During the exoneration procedings that proved his innocence, an expert in false confessions concluded that the combination of exhaustion from the overnight search and long interrogation, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty led Damon to falsely confess.
It seems unfathomable that someone would admit to committing a crime that they had nothing to do with. But in more than 25 percent of the exonerations proven by DNA, that is exactly what happened.
The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.
The factors that can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation include:
Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable -- children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation. Children and adults both are often convinced that that they can “go home” as soon as they admit guilt.
People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired mental state due to mental illness, drugs or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt.
Mentally capable adults also give false confessions due to a variety of factors like the length of interrogation, exhaustion or a belief that they can be released after confessing and prove their innocence later.
Sometimes law enforcement use harsh interrogation tactics with uncooperative suspects. But some police officers, convinced of a suspect’s guilt, occasionally use tactics so persuasive that an innocent person feels compelled to confess. For instance, it is perfectly legal for law enforcement to employ deception or trickery in the interrogation room. Some suspects are untruthfully told that there is already evidence pointing to their guilt, such as a forensic test that links the suspect to the crime. Some suspects have confessed to avoid physical harm or discomfort. Others are told they will be convicted with or without a confession and that their sentence will be more lenient if they confess. Some are told a confession is the only way to avoid the death penalty. These tactics can be persuasive in eliciting a false confession.
The electronic recording of interrogations, from beginning to end, is the single best reform available to prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions. This record will improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects.
In some false confession cases, details of the crime are inadvertently communicated to a suspect by police during questioning. Later, when a suspect knows these details, the police take the knowledge as evidence of guilt. Often, threats or promises are made to the suspect off camera and then the camera is turned on, resulting in a false confession. Without an objective record of the entire custodial interrogation, it is difficult to gauge the reliability of the confession.
For law enforcement agencies, recording interrogations can prevent disputes about how a suspect was treated, create a clear record of a suspect’s statements and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. Recording interrogations can also deter officers from using illegal or devious tactics to secure a confession.
More than 20 states, from Alaska to Massachusetts to Illinois, require the recording of custodial interrogations through law or court action. More than a thousand additional law enforcement agencies voluntarily record interrogations. A 2004 study conducted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of more than 200 locations that implemented this reform found that police departments overwhelmingly embrace the measure as good law enforcement practice whose time has come. Proactive policies like these have been adopted because the practice benefits police and prosecutors as well as innocent suspects.