On December 9 viewers of the CBS news show Sixty Minutes got a glimpse of a not uncommon phenomena in the criminal justice system, false confessions. Many Americans, who take pride in our criminal justice system, cannot grasp the concept of confessing to a crime one did not commit. But it happens.
One of the most famous cases involving convictions based on a false confession involved the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who went to prison for the murder of three young boys, because one of the teenagers, who had the mental capacity of a child, confessed to the police, under intense pressure, that he and his two friends committed the murders. No DNA evidence linking the West Memphis Three was ever discovered, and it took a massive publicity campaign spearheaded by celebrities, that allowed the three individuals, now grown men, to be set free after being wrongfully incarcerated for 18 years (see Reentry Central News, August 24, 2011).
The age of the confessor and the tactics the police used in extracting the confession in the West Memphis Three case are similar to the false confessions made by teenagers who were a part of a group of teens rounded up by Detroit police seeking to solve two separate murders.
Although the majority of the teens maintained their innocence, the judges in both cases chose to take the word of the confessors and sent the young men to prison, some for life. If it was not for the courage of Bob Milan, the former prosecutor who originally handled one of the murder cases, and who later had doubts about the guilt of the individuals he sent away, and also by the work done by the Innocence Project and attorneys representing the falsely convicted defendants, all of the innocent victims of a false confession would still be incarcerated.
Scientific evidence has uncovered the fact that the brain is not fully developed until one’s early twenties. Preying on gullible teenagers by telling them they could go home if they signed a confession admitting that they took part in the murders, was one tactic Chicago police used. Instilling fear, and out-right bullying were others. One of the most emotional moments of the Sixty Minutes piece is when one of the teenagers accused of a murder repeats over and over that he loved his mama and wanted to get home to her. Picking up on that love, Chicago homicide detectives used the fear of never seeing his mother again to put pressure on the teen to confess. The young man’s mother died while he was incarcerated forever scarring him.
Sadly, the false confessions connected to the individuals featured in the Sixty Minutes segment are not a rarity. Peter Neufeld, an attorney for one of the convicted tells viewers, “Quite simply what Cooperstown is to Baseball, Chicago is to false confessions. It is the Hall of Fame.” Hopefully, the airing of the Sixty Minutes show on false confessions will spur a movement to unearth many more.
Not everyone who signs a false conviction is a teenager. Adults have been known to succumb to pressure, or to sign after being threatened, or deprived of sleep. Whatever the reasons, Sixty Minutes provides an intriguing look at how innocent people can be convinced to admit to doing something they did not do.
The transcript of the Sixty Minutes segment on false confessions can be accessed by clicking on the link below.