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Sobering Lessons From the Lone Juror in the Etan Patz Case

05/15/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Last Friday, following 18 long days of jury deliberation, a trial judge in a Manhattan courthouse declared a mistrial in the criminal case against Pedro Hernandez. Hernandez was indicted for the 1979 abduction and murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz in SoHo, a gruesome event that is said to have altered the face of parenting in America. But this trial touches on more than just safe parenting.

In the absence of any physical evidence connecting Hernandez to the crime, the case revolved entirely on the jury's assessment of unrecorded statements that Hernandez gave investigators and various utterances he was said to have made to members of his church groups. Media interviews with several members of the jury provide a rare glimpse into how jurors react to confession testimony, one of the most vexing types of evidence used in criminal trials.

At the end of the day, just a sole juror, Adam Sirios, declined to place faith in Hernandez's confession. In addition to his displeasure with the police investigative work, Sirios parted way with the eleven member majority on two key issues.

First, the two factions disagreed over the fundamental question whether an innocent person would ever confess to a crime he did not commit. Sirios insisted that tendering a false confession was not implausible for a person like Hernandez, who had a low IQ and suffered from a personality disorder. The majority, it appears, were skeptical about this possibility. Indeed, 90 percent of surveyed Americans agree that no innocent person would confess to a crime he did not commit. By logical extension, people who confess are routinely deemed to be guilty.

However widespread, this intuition is simply wrong. Real world data indicate that false confessions are made with some regularity even by people with greater mental capabilities than Hernandez. The records of the NY based Innocence Project show that in one out of every four DNA exonerations, the defendant had given a confession, the vast majority of which were undoubtedly false.

The interrogation protocols commonly used by American law enforcement agencies are surprisingly efficacious. Interrogators are taught to drive suspects into a state of hopelessness and submissiveness. They then work to alter suspects' perception of the available courses of action, making the choice of offering a statement seem more beneficial than non-cooperation (rarely a viable proposition). About fifty percent of interrogative procedures yield incriminating statements, which are habitually admitted into evidence by trial court judges. The problem with the investigative protocols is that they operate similarly on guilty and innocent suspects. In other words, interrogative procedures do not adequately distinguish between true and false confessions.

Second, the Hernandez jurors were split over the significance of the fact that Hernandez provided specific physical details of a passageway on Thompson Street where he said he had dumped Etan's body (the body was never recovered). Mr. Sirios offered innocuous explanations for Hernandez's putative knowledge, whereas the majority believed that it corroborated the authenticity of the confession. Once again, the majority's inference dovetailed a popular conception that only true perpetrators can obtain an intimate knowledge of the specific particulars of a crime, especially facts that were not publicly known.

But again, real world experience belies this common intuition. Research conducted by Professor Brandon Garrett and by Dr. Saul Kassin and his colleagues has examined the content of statements given by suspects who were later exonerated of the crimes to which they had originally confessed. These studies show that a vast majority of false confessions were accompanied by full blown narratives containing a wealth of detail about the crime. Consistent with Mr. Sirios's intuition, these facts are often communicated by the investigators, even unwittingly, during the extended conversations that precede the issuance of the official statement.

It seems likely that we will never know for sure whether Hernandez's confession was true. But based on the evidence presented in court, there is good reason to believe that the lone juror got it right.

The Hernandez case confirms the adage that "confession is the queen of evidence." Even without a shred of physical evidence, an almost unanimous jury voted for conviction based on a 33-year-old statement, given by a man suffering from a personality disorder and limited intelligence. The case also demonstrates the grip that the two misguided intuitions hold on public perception and it begs for their revision: on occasion, innocent people do indeed confess to crimes they did not commit, and they go on to provide richly detailed statements that corroborate their false admissions of guilt.