False Confessions, Amazon Prime, 2020, director Katrine Philip.
What makes this interesting is we see footage of people who have been accused of heinous crimes—they were later proved to be innocent. We see, for example, police officers interviewing Lorenzo Montoya. He was fourteen-years-old when he walked into the police station 10th January 2000. He was convicted of the murder of Emily Johnson, a 29-year-old teacher at Skinner Middle School, and sentenced to life without parole. In the United States legal system detectives can tell lies in order to gain a conviction. One detective poses as a forensic expert and takes Montoya’s shoe away from the interview room and comes back and says it matched the blood splatter found beside Johnson’s body. Montoya confessed to the murder.
Twenty-two-year-old intern Malthe Thompson was arrested and sent to Riker’s island after he admitted sexually abusing 13 children at a Midtown pre-school in Manhattan. Detectives said they had video evidence of the offences. Thompson said he could not remember sexually abusing these children, but it must be true if they had images. In Denmark, where he was a citizen, police are not allowed to lie to suspects, and they are breaking the law if they do. Thompson died when he was twenty-seven.
Korey Wise was one of five black and Latino teenagers convicted in The Central Park jogging and rape case. I vaguely remembered this (the victim has recently outed herself and wrote a book about her experiences). Justice was swift. Police took in over fourteen suspects. Five of them admitted to the offences. Many of them, like Wise, aged 14-to-16-years old. Wise served thirteen years and eight months of his 6-15 years’ sentence on charges of sexual abuse, assault and riot. A serial rapist admitted to the crime and the boys were exonerated with the help of forensic evidence. They were paid damages.
As usual, we have the talking heads such as former detectives such as Lieutenant Joseph La Corte who admitted that the way they went about things was simply wrong. That False Confessions weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on. The whole system was corrupt.
In Britain, we know that policemen aren’t meant to lie to suspects, but we know they do. The Guildford Four, for example, didn’t suddenly decide to admit to a pub bombing they’d no knowledge of.
Psychologist, Saul M Kasin (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) offers us clues to why this happens. We all like to think that we’d be the exception to the rule. He cites Milgram’s classic obedience study in which the overwhelming majority of subjects went ahead and tortured those experimented on when commanded by a professorial authority figure. Milgram concluded that given the right conditions American citizens would behave in a similar way to their Nazi counterparts. The moron’s moron ran a larger experiment, when the 45th United States President asked his subjects to believe that the ballot for the 46th Presidential election was rigged, and they should storm the Senate and Congress. Four United States citizens lost their lives.
Kassin suggests that confessions are highly persuasive to jurors, sometimes trumping even forensic evidence at trials. Jurors, quite simply, find it hard to believe that anyone would admit to doing something they didn’t.
Suspects such as Lorenzo Montoya and Korey Wise are often vulnerable. But they believe the opposite to jurors. If they admit their guilt, they’ll get the detectives browbeating them off their back, and then they can go home. I used such a scenario in a novel I’d written years ago. The suspects believe they are innocent and jurors will know they are innocent too. They can’t quite work out why jurors won’t believe them. And jurors can’t understand why they confessed if they were innocent. Common-sense and morality suggests not only would that be wrong, but it would be dumb. Victims of miscarriages are the poorest members of society and have little or no one to speak for them. See, for example, the case of Ruben Carter.
Kassin goes back further to the Salem witch trials of 1692. He looks at the pattern of prevalence and links it to those prisoners like Corey and Montoya who have been imprisoned because of false confections but exonerated through advances in DNA forensic evidence and suggests that figure is around 20% to 25%, but that figure may be higher in capital murder cases. A ball-park figure therefore suggests more than a quarter of those executed did not commit the crime.
Jeffrey Deskovic, for example, was released from a New York prison on 20th September 2006. He spent 15 years inside for a murder he didn’t commit. ‘I told them what they wanted to hear’, he said. He believed the American criminal justice system would exonerate him. ‘I thought it was all going to be OK in the end’.
Even when jurors know that confessions have been coerced, they don’t believe they’ve been that coerced. They believe in the American justice system too. Detectives can’t tell who the liars are because they too are lying. Judges and jurors side with what they know. And what’s been told them by men in uniform. Nothing new here. Burn the witch. Jail the black man.