Policing confessions

Posted: November 09, 2012

By Louis Natali

Since medieval times, confessions, known as the "queen of evidence," have been relied on to help police and prosecutors deal with terrible crimes. And for nearly as long, interrogation practices have generated fear, criticism, wrongful convictions, and false confessions. In a symposium today, the Temple Law Review and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project are bringing together leading scholars, judges, social scientists, and lawyers to discuss the continuing problem of false confessions.

Nationwide, false confessions have been uncovered or suspected in such infamous cases as the "Career Girls Murders" on Manhattan's Upper East Side in 1963, the assault and rape of the Central Park jogger in 1989, the Arkansas Cub Scout killings in which the "West Memphis Three" were convicted, and the 1997 Virginia slaying that led to imprisonment of the "Norfolk Four" Navy sailors.

Here in Philadelphia, we have seen false confessions in such high-profile cases as the 2000 "Lex Street Massacre" and the 1995 murder of the Center City jogger. In a notorious 1975 case, police claimed Robert "Reds" Wilkinson admitted throwing a Molotov cocktail into a Puerto Rican family's rowhouse in predominantly white Feltonville, killing a woman and her four children. Following an Inquirer investigation, however, it emerged that police had beaten Wilkinson, who was illiterate and could not have written the confession, and that another confession had been suppressed. Federal authorities ultimately stepped in and prosecuted two neighbors in the bombing, and six police detectives were convicted of conspiring to violate Wilkinson's civil rights.

Alarming practices

Such disturbing cases have led to calls for reexamination and reform of police practices. One of the most important reforms is video recording of custodial interrogations and confessions, which can eliminate perennial gaps in public knowledge of what goes on in interrogation rooms. Philadelphia police and prosecutors have been slow to adopt this reform.

The Supreme Court's famous Miranda decision noted that standard police practice calls for isolating suspects to give them a feeling of powerlessness and a sense that confession is inevitable. This was part of the "Reid technique" cited with alarm in Miranda, under which police are taught to:

Question suspects in private.

Display confidence as to their guilt.

Minimize the moral seriousness of crimes.

Trick suspects into believing there is more evidence of crimes than really exists.

This methodology, the court held, created a coercive, secretive atmosphere and left the public in the dark about what occurs in the interrogation room. The court attempted to mitigate suspects' disadvantage in a police-dominated atmosphere by requiring that suspects be informed of their right to remain silent and to consult an attorney.

Miranda's failings

But Miranda has not provided much protection - certainly not the level that its author, Chief Justice Earl Warren, expected. Many suspects give up their right to remain silent and to obtain representation after police make it clear that they view invocation of these rights as evidence of guilt. In other cases, the assertion of Miranda rights is either ignored or belittled by savvy detectives - an approach amply established, for example, in David Simon's 1991 book Homicide, which details the interrogation techniques of Baltimore homicide detectives. Still other suspects are initially treated as witnesses, which allows them to make incriminating statements before Miranda warnings are given.

Those gathering at Temple today plan to examine why innocent suspects sometimes confess, and why police should record, at a minimum, all custodial interrogations - that is, those conducted with subjects whose freedom of movement is significantly limited. Model legislation that has been adopted in some form in at least 10 states requires that every custodial questioning, whether of a witness or a suspect, be recorded.

A representative from John E. Reid & Associates is also scheduled to attend the symposium to explain the technique that has been so influential among police and military interrogators. And the symposium is expected to feature an exonerated man who will recount his experience in the custodial interrogation that led to his conviction for a murder he did not commit.

Through scholarly exchanges like this one, we hope confession practices can be further illuminated and improved to ensure that they protect the innocent and find the truly guilty.


Louis Natali is a professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.

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