Posted by Edmond Geary | Posted in Wrongful Convictions | Posted on 13-03-2012
A confession, or what the prosecution will call a confession is usually very compelling evidence to a jury. And when other evidence in the case is inconsistent with guilt, prosecutors hardly ever slow down on the train to conviction. It has taken DNA evidence to prove scientifically in case after case that the confession given was false. Of the 289 convictions that have been reversed from later presentation of DNA evidence, about a quarter of them involve false confessions. Of course, DNA evidence is available in only a fraction of crimes, so there is no telling how many false confessions have put innocent people away – executed them.
One such case was in Oakland, California. It arose from the death of Antonio Ramirez. A minor named Felix was the person charged with murder. After Ramirez was shot 7 times, police arrested Felix, 16 years old at the time. It was late, the police isolated him without a lawyer and refused his requests for his mother. The police hammered on him until he started telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. That is the usual and expected progression given enough time to wear down the suspect, as the police know.
When police asked for a diagram of the crime scene, Felix’s efforts were so inaccurate the police never showed his product to the jury. He told police he went one direction to escape, but they had to correct him. When he described his escape route without mentioning an alley located there, the police added the alley, so he adopted it into his statement.
When the police asked him about the gun, Felix said he didn’t have a gun. The interrogators went ballistic, of course, and started yelling at him. At this point, he was definitely feeling threatened, so he made up a detail that would later help him. He told them he gave the gun to his grandfather. As was later proved, both his grandfathers were deceased.
Once gone through, the story was ready for the police to present. They taped it, sure they had fashioned a winner. But the police had forgetten to feed one critical detail to Felix. When he read the complaint in court days later, he learned for the first time the date of the crime to which he had confessed. On that day, the day Antonio Ramirez was shot to death, Felix had a perfect alibi. He had been locked up in juvenile detention.
Even with that alibi, however, his criminal defense lawyer was afraid to go to trial. That’s how powerful confessions, however trumped up, are to a jury. Juries simply cannot believe someone would confess to a crime they did not commit. Even judges do not want to believe someone would confess to something they did not do. The many trumped trials during the Stalin purge trials in the Soviet Union all featured confessions. They were all coerced, yet even those close to the events believed the condemned never would have confessed unless they were guilty. At least they thought that until their turn came to enter the Stalin show trial machine, they confessed falsely, and were executed.
Psychological studies show they do, however. Especially children, the mentally ill and mentally retarded do, as well as those who are drunk and high. All such people share a vulnerability to coercion and suggestion. Many are eager to propitiate authority figures, many are impulsive. Just as Felix did, children often believe they will be put in jail if they continue to resist the importunities of police and believe they will get to go home if they cooperate with the police. This is the opposite of what a mature adult would expect, so it runs counter to what jurors expect anyone else to believe.