Criminal confessions are generally a good thing. They save our justice system time and money. But according to statistics from the Innocence Project, approximately 30% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence involved a defendant making a false confession or pleading guilty.
An investigating officer’s performance is not based on the amount of crimes committed, it’s based on arrests. There’s a misconception that a wrongful arrest will correct itself through the trial system, but most jury members hold a prevailing belief that innocent people don’t confess to a crime they did not commit.
5. George Junius Stinney Jr. (1944)
On December 17, 2014, a circuit court judge in South Carolina officially relinquished George Stinney Jr’s 70-year-old conviction, effectively clearing his name and recognizing the unjust nature of his presumed guilt. To date, Stinney, at the age of 14, is the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the 20th century. The only evidence linking Stinney to the murders of Betty Binnicker (11) and Mary Thames (8) was eyewitness testimony (from George’s sister) that George spoke to the victims shortly before their disappearance, and George’s confession.
4. The West Memphis Three (1993)
Nearly one month after the murders of 8-year-old classmates Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, Jessie Misskelley, Jr.’s father gave police permission to privately question his son (who had a reported IQ of 72). Twelve hours later the police walked out with a confession whereby Misskelley (17) implicated himself and two other accomplices: Damien Echols (18) and Jason Baldwin (16).
In 2007, DNA evidence collected from the scene was finally tested (DNA evidence is often ignored if a confession is obtained) and did not match any of the convicted boys. It wasn’t until 2011 that the state of Arkansas offered them an Alford plea (a guilty plea in exchange for release), essentially protecting the state from being sued for wrongful imprisonment.
3. Corethian Bell (2000)
Since 1999, Cook County, Chicago, has required the videotaping of confessions. Corethian Bell (24) was videotaped explaining how he stabbed his mother, Netta Bell, with a kitchen knife because he was “angry with her.” What was not videotaped was his interrogation, which lasted 50 hours and involved officer brutality. Bell was a diagnosed schizophrenic with an IQ of 74.
Blood and semen DNA collected from the scene was tested a year later and matched DeShawn Boyd, a serial rapist who was serving time for a murder/rape he committed a few blocks down from where Netta Bell was killed six months prior.
2. Earl Washington Jr. (1982)
One year after Rebecca Williams was raped and murdered, Earl Washington, Jr. (22) was arrested in a neighboring county for an alleged burglary. After two days of questioning, police obtained confessions from Washington (with a reported IQ of 69) for four additional crimes, one of them being the murder of Williams. Washington’s confession was riddled with inconsistencies, like not knowing the victim’s race, claiming she was short when she was 5’8”, claiming he stabbed her two or three times when she was stabbed 38 times, and claiming that her apartment was empty during the attack when in fact her two young children were home.
DNA evidence was tested 11 years later and excluded Washington as a contributor of the semen stain, but he would remain in prison for seven more years until receiving a pardon by the governor of Virginia.
1. The Norfolk Four (1997)
The calamity of the Norfolk Four case began with the murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko, who was raped, stabbed and strangled in her apartment. Danial Williams and his roommate Joe Dick, two of the Norfolk four, were implicated as potential suspects because Williams was “obsessed” with the victim and lived nearby. Separate interrogations of these men resulted in confessions from each, but many of the details of their stories were inconsistent with each other as well as existing case evidence. Moreover, naval logs showed that Dick was on duty during the time of the crime, and neither of the men’s DNA matched what was collected from the scene. Investigators assumed that the DNA must belong to an unknown co-conspirator, and enticed Dick to fabricate an accomplice: fellow sailor Eric Wilson, the third member of the Four. The DNA did not match Wilson, so Dick implicated the fourth member of the Four, Derek Tice.
Tice’s DNA and recollection of the events did not match either, so investigators returned to Dick for an explanation, and he named three new co-conspirators. However, these newcomers had concrete alibis and were not charged. Seven suspects have now been implicated in a murder that, one year later, was linked to man with no ties to the armed forces and who came forward out of the blue: serial rapist Omar Ballard. His DNA was not only a match but he self-admittedly committed the crime alone. It took nearly 11 years before the Norfolk Four were released from prison; three of them are still registered as sex offenders.
The complexity of human psychology is a discomforting reality when it comes to something as fragile and precious as our justice system. So what can be done to ensure that innocent people aren’t unjustly punished, allowing the actual killers to go free? First off, we should abandon the gold standard for interrogation: the Reid technique. Established in 1947 by John E. Reid and Associates, the Reid technique does not aim to extract information about the case but instead obscures the morality and consequences of the crime itself in order to manipulate the interviewee.
Aside from having an overly warm and fuzzy acronym, P.E.A.C.E. (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate), an alternative technique, does focus on the case by allowing the anxiety associated with lying to run its course until the inconsistencies reveal themselves.
And this should go without saying, but videotaping the interrogation (or recording audio at the very least) should not only be required but should be admissible as evidence in the trial.