Why would anyone confess to a crime they did not commit? What would it take to get you to confess to a crime? For Christopher Ochoa, it took twenty hours of questioning and badgering and threats to get him to falsely confess to the murder of a woman in Austin, Texas. As a result, he spent twelve years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Most people find it hard to understand how anyone could ever confess to a crime they did not commit. But it happens over and over again. False confessions are a well-documented reality, especially among vulnerable populations like juveniles and the mentally-impaired. Of all the DNA exonerations nationwide, false confessions occur in over 20 percent of them.
Last week, two major newspapers highlighted two different cases where the confessions of the defendants had been called into question. As recently reported in the New York Times, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen were released in late June after new DNA evidence from an unknown individual cast doubt on their confessions in the murders of four teenage girls in Austin, TX. Attorneys for both men claim the confessions were the result of police coercion and misconduct. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, Ronald Kitchen spent twenty-one years in prison following a confession he made about the murders of five people. After allegations of abuse and torture on behalf of the officer responsible for securing the confession surfaced, his case was turned over to the Attorney General’s office to re-investigate. Kitchen was released when prosecutors dropped all charges against him because they found no evidence he was involved in the crime.
To a jury or judge, a confession is an incredibly powerful piece of evidence. It can overwhelm evidence pointing to a defendant’s innocence, and judges and juries will sometimes convict an individual based on a confession alone. Given the weight of this evidence, special care must be taken to ensure that confessions are accurate.
How can we prevent against false confessions? States can adopt a policy that requires law enforcement officers to record custodial interrogations, from the delivery of a suspect’s Miranda rights to the end of the interview, without interruption. Electronic recording of custodial interrogations has emerged as a powerful innovation and fact-finding tool for both sides of the criminal justice system. It helps protect innocent suspects and helps convict the guilty.
When interrogations are recorded, officers are free to study the suspect’s reactions instead of scribbling notes. Judges and juries are able to see exactly what took place during the interrogation, allowing them to more effectively weigh the evidence. In addition, recording can protect officers from false claims of abuse or coercion and provide an excellent tool for training new officers on proper interrogation techniques. Ultimately, recording is in the best interest of all parties – the defense, the prosecution, and the public – that strong safeguards exist to protect against wrongful imprisonment and reduce the number of convictions overturned on appeal.
Many detectives and prosecutors enthusiastically embrace electronic recording. Over 450 police and sheriff’s departments across the country have independently adopted recording procedures. Unfortunately though, only ten states have statewide laws that require electronic recording. The virtue of electronic recording of custodial interrogations lies not only in its ability to help guard against false confessions, but also in its ability to develop the strongest evidence possible to help convict the guilty. Electronic recording incurs minimal costs to the state in terms of implementation, and when compared to the human and monetary costs of wrongful convictions, it is a sound policy. Every state has a responsibility to protect the life and liberty of its citizens. Electronic recording is a simple reform that can help states live up to that responsibility by helping to create a more fair and accurate criminal justice system.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.