"True Stories of False Confessions" edited by Rob Warden and Steven A. Drizin

Special to the Tribune

"True Stories of False Confessions"
Edited by Rob Warden and Steven A. Drizin
Northwestern University Press, 514 pages, $27.95

Recent decades have seen more than 100 death row exonerations in the United States, sparking tough questions about how such injustices could occur in a nation that prides itself on fairness and the rule of law. One notable response is "True Stories of False Confessions," a riveting new anthology edited by Rob Warden and Steven A. Drizin, both of Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions. Americans love true crime stories—witness the success of such television shows as “American’s Most Wanted.” At one level, this volume speaks to our seemingly insatiable appetite for such tales, with 39 cases ranging from the bleak poverty of Chicago’s South Side to the glittering enclaves of Manhattan. Some of the cases are high-profile (the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the alleged Center Park jogger “wilding”), some are historic (a death penalty exoneration leading to New York’s 1965 abolishment of capital punishment, and with contributors including John Grisham and Alex Kotlowitz), all of them make fascinating reading.

But in contrast to most true crime anthologies—designed to titillate and entertain—this one has a purpose: To explain why people confess to crimes they did not commit and to propose reforms designed to make such confessions less likely. To this end, the editors have grouped the cases into eleven categories—including brainwashing, police force, and child abuse—building a compelling case that false confessions are not rare occurrences in a system that basically works. Rather, they are predictable and systemic, the inevitable result of deeply flawed interrogation techniques. Take the case of Connecticut teenager Peter Reilly, who confessed to killing his mother even though he didn’t remember it. Widely known as a good kid, Peter arrived home from a church meeting to find his fatally wounded mother in a pool of blood. Confident of exoneration, he willingly took a lie detector test but was then falsely told that the results proved his involvement. Perhaps he’d had a lapse of memory, a detective helpfully suggested. With no doubt that his questioners shared his truth-seeking goal, Peter came to question his own innocence—“I want to tell you I did it, now, but I’m still not sure I did do it,” he said at one point. In the end, he proved no match for his examiners, whose version of events he adopted: “I would say you’re right, but I don’t remember doing the things that happened. That’s just it. I believe I did it now.” He signed a written confession. In fact, as the evidence later showed, Peter did not do it. Following his conviction for manslaughter, he was freed on bond pending appeal, thanks to $60,000 raised by neighbors, and with support from playwright Arthur Miller, resident of a nearby town, he acquired a new pro bono legal team. In further proceedings, the judge termed Peter’s conviction “a grave injustice,” and to top things off, it later emerged that officials had concealed exculpatory information that placed him five miles away at the time of the crime. Such a story is shocking in itself, but when presented along with dozens of others reflecting similar tactics and all leading to confessions later deemed untruthful, it demonstrates a pattern—and becomes a call to action. (In Illinois alone, 60% of 42 wrongful murder convictions since 1970 have rested all or in part on false confessions, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. ) Again and again, we read about suggestible suspects all-too-eager to believe their accusers’ version of events, fabricated or questionable polygraph tests presented as proof of guilt, and interrogations lasting many hours, during which suspects grow increasingly tired, hungry, and disoriented—an experience described by one of the accused as “like being hypnotized.” Still, impressive as this collection is as a whole, not every case is equally compelling. While none would seem to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—the threshold for conviction in our criminal justice system—it’s not crystal clear in every case that the accused were entirely innocent. At one extreme, is a 19th-century case where two brothers faced the death penalty for killing a man who turned out to be alive—a textbook case of vindication (and the subject of Rob Warden’s previous book, "Wilkie Collin's The Dead Alive'). Other scenarios, however, are a good bit murkier. For example, the five Harlem teens convicted in the notorious Central Park jogger case were exonerated when DNA evidence and a new confession tied the attack to another man, but a follow-up report by a New York Police Department panel contends that the exonerated suspects—who had taken part in a Central Park “wilding” spree that same night—also “most likely” participated in the jogger’s attack. While this claim may seem far-fetched to many, it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Warden and Drizin conclude with a set of policy recommendations aimed at making confessions more reliable. Along with requiring police to electronically record interrogations in their entirety—a procedure already instituted in some states and described by one approving prosecutor as “the best reform that has ever been rammed down my throat” —they push for limits on the duration of interrogations, banning of polygraphs and voice-stress analyzers, additional restrictions on the use of lies to elicit information, prohibition of implicit promises of leniency, strict limits on the use of hypothetical blackout scenarios, and the introduction of pretrial reliability hearings of the type commonly used with other kinds of evidence. While acknowledging that these proposals are bound to face resistance, the editors contend that their suggestions “deserve serious consideration by police, prosecutors, judges, and legislators, if they want to be part of the solution to the problem of false confessions—rather than part of the problem.” Thoughtful readers of this unsettling volume are likely to agree.


Amy Gutman is the author of two suspense novels, "Equivocal Death" and "The Anniversary", both published by Little, Brown. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



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