Untrue Confessions


During last week’s Judiciary Committee hearing at which Attorney General John Ashcroft was grilled about the issue of torture, New York’s Chuck Schumer cautioned, “We ought to be reasonable about this. I think there are very few people in this room or in America who would say that torture should never, ever be used, particularly if thousands of lives are at stake.”

But in criminal cases, as the recent spate of overturned death row convictions has shown, confessions coerced by physical or psychological brutality often turn out to be wrongful confessions.

Northwestern law professor Steven A. Drizin and University of California-Irvine criminology professor Richard A. Leo say that, according to studies, faulty confessions were the “primary cause of wrongful conviction in 14 to 25 percent of the documented cases.” In addition, confession sometimes sets in motion an irreversible presumption of guilt. “The problem with military and police interrogators is that they believe they can tell whether a suspect or prisoner is guilty or innocent by observing his or her behavior,” Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College, tells the Voice. “Once they make that judgment, they interrogate with the presumption of guilt, and this allows them to believe that what the suspects say is the truth.”

In the 1989 Central Park jogger case, the five young men arrested and found guilty—and later cleared—claimed they were coerced into making confessions by the police, who they said hit them, called them liars, and told them they’d be freed only after confessing. Brute force isn’t the only tactic, of course. In 1985, Eddie Joe Lloyd, a mentally ill man in Detroit, confessed to the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. Police interviewed him several times in a hospital, while he was heavily medicated, and fed him evidence he could not possibly have known. Post-conviction DNA testing led to Lloyd’s being set free.

In a 9-11 related case, Abdullah Higazy, an Egyptian student studying in New York, was coerced by the FBI into admitting that he owned a pilot’s radio found in his hotel room across from the WTC. Higazy was cleared only after the radio was actually claimed by an American commercial airline pilot.