Confessions 101

I have gone back and forth about Mitch’s guilt or innocence. I can explain the Chlamydia. I can even explain the genital warts. I can describe inconsistencies in the testimony (as you will see). But when I read Mitch’s confession…It is too graphic…too upsetting. People just don’t confess to things they didn’t do, right?

Apparently they do.

A story from Africa

While in Kenya a few years ago a group of Americans went to a prison near Kitale, Kenya. Their pastor leader told them to bring nothing into the prison –no camera, passport, wallet, purse…nothing. As they were leaving one of the group said to the leader. ‘Somebody stole my wallet while we were in there.’ He was told to chalk it up to experience because he’d been warned. But he didn’t. He went back and told the warden. After they returned to their hotel the leader got a phone call. “Pastor! It’s a miracle. Jesus has taken my wallet from the prison and placed it back in my room.” (He was serious)

I won’t tell you what the pastor said but it was not a Christian phrase.  He took the man back to the prison to apologize. The warden thanked them but said he already had three men who had confessed!

 A False Confession

In 1983 two men with marginal IQ’s confessed to the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl. Confessed! And received a “fair” trial.

Several months ago they were exonerated due to DNA evidence linking a known rapist to the crime.

In 1994 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) turned down a request to review the case. In the minority opinion, Justice Blackmun felt that due to their intellectual deficiencies that the death penalty met the criteria for “cruel and unusual “punishment. One of them had been sentenced to death and was North Carolina’s longest death row inmate. For the majority, Justice Scalia, in refusing to consider the request, felt the death penalty was appropriate for the most heinous of crimes, citing this case for which these two were (later) exonerated.

Only the Guilty Confess

Two things that are pertinent for me in Mitch’s case are the confession and the trial. Many people, including some in law and law enforcement, incorrectly assume that if a confession is present and a trial finds guilt the story ends there. That is not the end of the story. Read a trial transcript and you’ll discover that trials are about winning and losing, not about fairness and justice.

In an article entitled Only the Guilty Would Confess to Crimes”: Understanding the Mystery of False Confessions (The Jury Expert November 28, 2012) the authors state in their introduction:

It is naturally hard to understand why anyone would confess to a crime they had not committed. Yet, in North America we can trace false confessions back to at least 1692 and the Salem Witch Trials where “large numbers of mostly women were tried for witchcraft on the basis of confessions extracted by torture and threats.”

More than 300 years later, people continue to falsely confess to crimes ranging from academic cheating to murder. But the mystery of why someone would falsely confess persists. Unlike the Salem Witch Trials, most false confessions today are provided under psychological duress, but without torture or threats of physical harm. Do the generally accepted modern police methods still produce false confessions, or does the responsibility for false confession fall entirely on the confessor? 

There is a tendency to believe “others” might well confess under duress–but most people think they, themselves, would never do such a thing. This belief illustrates the reality that most of us have no idea of what it feels like to undergo an interrogation. More than 80% of those taken into custody by the police waive their Miranda rights.

Innocent people think, since they did nothing wrong, that cooperating with the interrogators will simply expose their innocence. Instead, waiving their right to silence exposes them to the risk of false confession. Those who have a criminal past are much less likely to waive their right to silence.

Still, why would anyone confess to something they have not done? If you believe justice will prevail, why would you confess, especially to a very serious crime? There are a number of possible reasons, but the most compelling relates to the power of the interrogation process. The majority (about 65%) of suspects in custody either “fully or partially confess” to the police. Something powerful clearly happens during the interrogation process itself. 

The Innocence Project has cleared 297 former prisoners found guilty via trial in the criminal justice system. Their FAQ (frequently asked questions) on false confessions offers the following summation of false confessions:

“Over 25 percent of the more than 290 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the U.S. have involved some form of a false confession.”

So my pendulum swings back to INNOCENT. Maybe he was coerced. But still the question lingers Why?



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Retired physician, author, and nonprofit worker in Africa

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