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True Stories of False Confessions

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In most police and courtroom dramas, crimes are solved as soon as a character confesses. However, as a new book edited by Rob Warden and Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions shows, a confession is sometimes only the beginning of the real story.

In True Stories of False Confessions, Warden and Drizin have collected 39 actual cases, written by authors like John Grisham and Alex Kotlowitz, in which people said they were responsible for crimes they did not commit.

Some of these stories are what you might expect. It's not hard to imagine, for example, a person falsely confessing to a crime because police tortured or threatened him or her with death.

Take the case of Chris Ochoa. His interrogators said they were going to charge him with the death penalty if he refused to implicate himself and his friend, Richard Danzinger, in a murder and rape they did not commit. Faced with what felt like an impossible choice, Ochoa confessed and was sentenced with Danzinger to life in prison. Almost 12 years later, the two were exonerated by DNA evidence.

The fact that law enforcement had to threaten Ochoa's life to make him confess likely fits most people's preconceptions of the kinds of circumstances that lead to false confessions. That's probably why courts prohibit and throw out confessions that are obtained by such coercive tactics.

But how do we understand what turns out to be the more common, counter-intuitive scenario -- when police use standard interrogation techniques, but still end up eliciting a false confession?

2009-10-19-beverly.gif This is what happened to Beverly Monroe, a single, middle-aged mother of three. In 1992, Monroe discovered her boyfriend's body at his home. He was on his couch with a bullet in his forehead, fired from his revolver that was found beside him. All of the evidence pointed to a suicide, but police investigator Dave Riley was certain that Monroe had shot her boyfriend.

Riley wanted to talk to Monroe. She agreed to cooperate and made the mistake of not immediately requesting a lawyer. Over the course of several interrogations, Riley accused Monroe of being involved in her boyfriend's death. Monroe insisted he was wrong, but the interrogations slowly eroded the confidence she had in her own innocence.

Through a combination of lies and manipulation, Riley convinced Monroe into believing she had played a role in her boyfriend's death, but it was so traumatic that she had erased it from her memory. Ultimately, Monroe signed a statement that affirmed Riley's theory, even though she was miles away from her boyfriend's house when he died. Later Monroe tried to recant her statement, but it didn't matter. The prosecution used her words to convict her of murder. Monroe spent the next 11 years in prison until she was finally exonerated in 2003.

When Senior U.S. District Court Judge Richard L. Williams reviewed Monroe's case and threw out her conviction, he called the police interviews "deceitful and manipulative" -- but as readers of True Stories of False Confessions will find, these are common interrogation techniques used by law enforcement agents across the country.

Through the stories they have compiled, Warden and Drizin show that our criminal justice interrogation system is broken.

At the end of their book, Warden and Drizin include a series of specific reforms that they believe will help prevent false confessions, including electronically recording all interrogations, particularly of juvenile suspects and witnesses who are more likely to give false confessions than adults.

But just as important as any particular policy reform is the need to change the mindset of ordinary citizens, who may be selected as jury members to decide the next false confession case.

Despite what we see on television or even what our intuition may tell us, "a confession is just a piece of evidence like any other evidence," said Drizin in a recent interview. "It's only as valuable as the other evidence that corroborates it. View it with suspicion. That's what we hope to happen here. Because the system breaks down when there's a confession, and it shouldn't."

To learn more about false confessions, listen to Rob Warden and Steven Drizin talk about True Stories of False Confessions on the podcast Innocence Speaks.

Visit the website for True Stories of False Confessions. Buy the book from Amazon. All royalties will go to the Center on Wrongful Convictions.