In approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.
The New York Times reports today
on new research showing how innocent people can provide detailed accounts of a crime they didn’t commit. Innocence Project cases have shown that youth, mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics contribute to many false confessions.
The New York Times article quotes Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, who studied 40 cases where false confessions contributed to wrongful convictions. His independent research also found that youth, mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics are leading causes. Most defendants Garrett studied had been subjected to lengthy, high-pressure interrogations without a lawyer present, and 13 of them were taken to the crime scene.
To defense lawyers, the new research is eye opening. “In the past, if somebody confessed, that was the end,” said Peter J. Neufeld, a founder of the Innocence Project, an organization based in Manhattan. “You couldn’t imagine going forward.”
The notion that such detailed confessions might be deemed voluntary because the defendants were not beaten or coerced suggests that courts should not simply look at whether confessions are voluntary, Mr. Neufeld said. “They should look at whether they are reliable.”
Of the 40 cases Garrett studied, eight of the defendants were cleared by DNA evidence before trial, but convicted anyway. That was the case for Innocence Project client Jeff Deskovic who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Another Innocence Project client in Garrett’s study, Eddie Lowery, spent ten years in prison after he confessed to a rape he did not commit.