On Dec. 7, a Montana judge released confessed murderer Barry Beach after ruling that new evidence in his case was “credible” and that he deserved a new trial.
Two days after Beach was freed, authorities in Illinois and New York dealt with two cases of confessions that defendants later said were coerced.
The question at the heart of each of these cases — and dozens like them across the country — is: “Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?”
Until recently, the idea that someone would falsely admit to a murder or a rape that they didn’t commit was considered preposterous, says former Washington, D.C., homicide detective Jim Trainum.
“I always ask people, ‘Why would somebody ever confess to a crime they didn’t do?’ ” Trainum says. “What is it we do in that interrogation room that convinces you that it is in your best interest to admit to something that could lead you to the death chamber?”
Trainum was a police officer for 27 years, 17 of them as a homicide detective. Now retired, Trainum serves as a consultant on cold cases and wrongful convictions where he specializes in false confessions.
He says he obtained his first false confession from a suspect just one year into his tenure as a homicide detective.
Trainum says he and his fellow investigators repeatedly ignored evidence that pointed away from the suspect who confessed.
“It’s like you’re on this speeding train going down the track and it’s extremely difficult to get that train to stop,” Trainum says. “While you’re on that train, you might be getting other leads coming in, other clues about the killer, but because we’re so fixated on the suspect, often times those clues go undocumented.”
Steven Drizin, a clinical law professor at Northwestern University School of Law and the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, studied more than 250 cases of proven false confessions. Nearly all false confessions start with the “misclassification error,” Drizin says.
“When the police officer enters the interrogation room, they’ve already presumed that the suspect is guilty based on evidence that has been gathered in the course of the investigation. Often times, it’s based on little more than a hunch,” Drizin says.
The next error investigators often make is what Drizin calls the “coercion error.” It starts when an interrogator begins accusing the suspect of committing the crime.
“Where these interrogations often go awry is when police begin to make implied or direct threats,” Drizin says. “They might tell the suspect that a confession will bring leniency or less time in prison. Sometimes they tell a suspect that a conviction is going to bring an extremely harsh consequence, such as the death penalty, or long sentences. Sometimes suspects are told they’re going to get raped in prison.”
Trainum says police investigators are trained to convince a suspect that the short-term benefit of a confession outweighs the long-term consequences that it might bring.
The third error interrogators often commit, Drizin says, is when interrogators knowingly or unknowingly provide the suspect with key details of the crime.
Garrett found that suspects confessed in detail to crimes they didn’t commit in 40 of those cases.
None of the interrogations in those cases was recorded in its entirety, Garrett says.
“In cases where the entire interrogation is recorded, it is a lot easier to find out” if interrogators have provided suspects with key details of the crime, Garrett says.
According to Garrett’s study, all but two of the 40 false confessions involved such disclosures.
While police and prosecutors told courts and juries that the suspects provided details that only the actual criminal would know, Garrett found that the police investigators divulged those details during the interrogation process.
All three experts agree that false confessions start with improper training. It is not a police or prosecutorial misconduct problem, they say.
“That’s what makes these cases so terrifying,” Garrett says. “These people are innocent, and yet the cases against them appear to be very strong because what happened in the interrogation room was not documented.”
Drizin, Garrett and Trainum say that complete video recordings of police interrogations would help reduce or eliminate wrongful convictions based on false confessions.
“The last thing most law enforcement officers want to do is put an innocent person behind bars,” Drizin said.