In a criminal trial, nothing makes guilt seem so certain than a confession from the accused. But a surprising number of confessions are not reliable. The incriminating facts often mentioned by police, then repeated later by the suspect.
Recently, the New York State Bar Association joined the call for police to videotape interrogations. It's part of an effort to reduce wrongful convictions.
Jeff Deskovic, of the Bronx, has just finished work on a master’s degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But his education began during the 16 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—but confessed to.
"False confessions are a problem," says Deskovic.
Ray Philo worked in law enforcement for 30 years and teaches criminal justice at Utica College.
"If you’re put in that psychological pressure cooker of a police interview room, there’s been evidence of people having some sort of a breakdown after a protracted period of time where they will confess," says Philo.
The Innocence Project uses DNA evidence to help free wrongfully convicted prisoners. Out of 27 exonerations in New York State, twelve of the original convictions involved false confessions.
"It’s very powerful evidence when somebody confesses, because why would you confess to something you didn’t do?" says Innocence Project attorney Alba Morales.
"It’s not always the investigating detective beating a confession out of somebody," says Morales. "It’s sometimes the person being worn down, the person being fed information."
In 1989, Deskovic was living in Peekskill, New York, about an hour north of the Bronx. When a classmate was found raped and murdered, he became a suspect. Police questioned Deskovic several times, sometimes treating him as a suspect, sometimes acting as if they needed his help. Eventually, Deskovic agreed to take a lie detector test.
"They said that: 'there’s information which we would like to share with you which could enable you to be more helpful to us, but we need you to pass this polygraph first,'" said Deskovic.
Deskovic says that police attempted to rig the polygraph test by feeding him lots of coffee to increase his pulse rate. They questioned him for seven-and-a-half hours. He did not have an attorney present.
"They used a technique known as 'good cop, bad cop,' where one officer takes on a more aggressive role, whereas the other pretends to be your friend," according to Deskovic.
The officer who administered the polygraph told Deskovic he had failed the test. The “good cop” then returned to the room.
"He informed me that the other officers were going to harm me but that he was holding them off, but that he could not do so indefinitely: 'you have to help yourself here, you understand.'"
Deskovic was young, naïve, afraid for his safety, and wanted to go home.
"I made up a story based upon information which they had given me in the course of the interrogation," said Deskovic. "By the police’s own testimony, at the end of the interrogation I was on the floor in a fetal position crying uncontrollably. Needless to say, I was arrested."
Deskovic was convicted in 1990, even though DNA evidence presented at his trial indicated that he did not commit the rape. Sixteen years later, the Innocence Project helped secure his exoneration after the DNA was linked to the actual killer, who was already in prison for another murder.
Attorney Larry Golden is a member of the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions.
"Perhaps if the jury had seen all of the circumstances visually they might have thought differently about the reliability of that confession," says Golden.
In 2009, the Bar Association Task Force proposed legislation to help prevent wrongful convictions. To curb false confessions, they recommended mandatory videotaping of all felony interrogations. In December 2010, a group of state law enforcement agencies officially endorsed videotaping.
While many police departments have voluntarily adopted the practice, no laws have been passed requiring it. For now, New York remains one of 33 states with no legal safeguard against false confessions.
Geoff Storm reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website, nyrp-uc.org.