Contaminated Confessions

[Trigger warning for violence and police abuses.]

There are a lot of good things about the US justice system—and a lot of bad things. One of its greatest shames is that only "Ten states require videotaping of at least some interrogations, like those in crimes that carry the death penalty, and seven state supreme courts have required or strongly encouraged recording," leaving the door wide for coerced and contaminated confessions.

When an innocent person is convicted and sent to prison on the basis of a false confession, particularly for violent crimes with high rates of repeat offenses (like rape), it isn't just that hir life (and hir family's lives) are permanently altered, often in devastating ways; the survivors of the crime(s) are denied real justice, and the actual perpetrators of the crime(s) are left free to continue offending, creating even more victims.

This is an entirely avoidable scenario, as long as only demonstrably reliable confessions are used. But procedures that ensure demonstrably reliable confessions are simply not in place in most of the country.
[M]ore than 40 others have given confessions since 1976 that DNA evidence later showed were false, according to records compiled by Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. Experts have long known that some kinds of people — including the mentally impaired, the mentally ill, the young and the easily led — are the likeliest to be induced to confess. There are also people like [Eddie Lowery, who spent 10 years in prison after confessing to a rape he did not commit and was later exonerated by DNA evidence], who says he was just pressed beyond endurance by persistent interrogators.

…Of the exonerated defendants in the Garrett study, 26 — more than half — were "mentally disabled," under 18 at the time or both. Most were subjected to lengthy, high-pressure interrogations, and none had a lawyer present. Thirteen of them were taken to the crime scene.

…Eight of the defendants in Professor Garrett's study had actually been cleared by DNA evidence before trial, but the courts convicted them anyway.

…Some defendants' confessions even include mistakes fed by the police. Earl Washington Jr., a mentally impaired man who spent 18 years in prison and came within hours of being executed for a murder he did not commit, stated in his confession that the victim had worn a halter top. In fact, she had worn a sundress, but an initial police report had stated that she wore a halter top.
Naturally, the less privileged a person in police custody is, the more likely zie is to be bullied into a false confession by an officer determined to get one. Every layer of situational disadvantage—being questioned without an attorney present, not knowing one's rights—adds to the likelihood of being railroaded. Every layer of cultural marginalization—youth, poverty, being a person of color, being a person with a psychological disability—adds to the likelihood of being railroaded.
Steven A. Drizin, the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, said the significance of contamination could not be understated. While errors might lead to wrongful arrest, "it's contamination that is the primary factor in wrongful convictions," he said.
Every time some MRA and/or rape apologist shows up in comments spouting off about wrongful rape convictions, I make the point that wrongful convictions being attributable to false allegations is vanishingly rare, and that their ire is best directed at police and prosecutors who fuck up cases, intentionally or irresponsibly. This is precisely what I'm talking about.

The Innocence Project has listed its priorities for fixing the system here. Ideas for how you can get involved are here.

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