Forensic Evaluation of Disputed Confession
On the evening of April, 19, 1989, twenty-eight-year old investment banker, Trisha Meili, was attacked while jogging in Central Park. During the assault, she was dragged into a ravine, beaten, sexually assaulted, and left for dead. One week later, when she emerged from a coma, she had no memory of the attack. The brutal assault of Meili, which would become infamously known as the Central Park Jogger Case, drew the attention of national media. Within seventy-two hours, NYPD detectives announced that five teenagers, ranging from the ages of fourteen to sixteen, had confessed. The boys implicated themselves and the others, providing detailed accounts of their behavior. In 1990, based solely on their confessions, the boys were convicted, even though DNA evidence excluded all five of them. In the years that followed, the “East Side Rapist” Matias Reyes was identified as the actual perpetrator (the only semen found on Meili’s body belonged to him), and the falsely accused Central Park Five (now known as the Exonerated Five) were set free after serving between five and eleven years in prison. Critical questions remained: Why did the boys confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Why did detectives overlook the scientific evidence in favor of the false confessions they had obtained? And why did jurors find them guilty? Sadly, the Central Park Jogger case is only one of many cases in which false confession evidence contributed to wrongful conviction and incarceration.1
It can be difficult to understand why someone would confess to a crime they did not commit, and in fact, the majority of mock jurors weigh confessions heavily for precisely that reason. Most people believe that they could never be swayed to falsely admit guilt, especially to a heinous crime. Data from the Innocence Project suggests that the problem of false confessions is more common than people think. According to a 2011 article2, defendants made false confessions or admissions to law enforcement in approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions subsequently overturned with DNA evidence. Confession evidence can also have the unfortunate effect of compromising or tainting other aspects of the investigation, with prosecutors, witnesses, and even forensic examiners being swayed by the powerful effect of a suspect’s self-incrimination. According to Kassin (2022), in seventy-eight percent of DNA exonerations containing a false confession, one or more other errors were introduced into evidence, errors which most often occurred after the confession was taken.
Suspects can and do falsely confess to crimes they did not commit, and they do so for a variety of reasons, including interrogation factors, such as the length of time in confinement prior to interrogation; the length of the interrogation itself; implied threats or promises made by detectives during the interrogation; the use of false evidence ploys (e.g. claiming to have evidence against the suspect); and controversial and coercive interrogation tactics, such as the Reid technique, which presume the guilt of the suspect. Individual factors also contribute to false confessions, such as the suspect’s physical (e.g. fatigue, hunger, intoxication, illness) and mental state (e.g. recent trauma, depression, anxiety, psychosis); cognitive limitations; language or acculturation issues; lack of experience in the criminal justice system; and suggestibility.
Utilizing personality and suggestibility testing, as well as a comprehensive clinical interview and review of the interrogation itself (e.g. video or audio), a psychological evaluation can assist in identifying the relevant factors present at the time of the interrogation which may have reduced the reliability of a suspect’s confession. An evaluation cannot determine whether a confession is true or false; a defendant, guilty or innocent. Rather, expert witness testimony can establish that innocent people can and do confess and that certain factors increase the risk of false confession. Because jurors have difficulty assessing the reliability of confession evidence, expert testimony can also assist in educating the jury about the factors which contribute to false confession and improving jurors’ knowledge and discernment in evaluating confession evidence.