Sunday, October 25, 2009

The False Confession

The false confession is one of the least known and least understood phenomena in the world of crime and justice. The whole concept seems so strange and incomprehensible to most people that any mention of a false confession elicits a mixture of disbelief and rage towards the person who gave the false confession.

A false confession is, just as the name implies, a confession to a crime made by an accused that is not accurate, or in many cases, completely fabricated.

Everyone can get their head around the idea of someone lying to avoid punishment. But wrongly implicating yourself? The very notion is so alien to most people that they have no sympathy for the person in question. No one can envision themselves doing something so "stupid" so they have little time for trying to understand why anyone else would do such a thing.

Beat it Out of Him


Almost without fail, false confessions are elicited by police officers who subject the accused to brutal interrogation over lengthy periods of time—sometimes days on end. The subject is broken down and then the new reality is planted in his mind in which he is the guilty party. The individual truly comes to believe that he was involved in the crime.

interrogate suspectIn the horrific, sleep-deprived nightmare in which he finds himself, his mind is so thoroughly twisted that he recites the narrative that has been presented to him by his tormentors. Or, the accused simply confesses because he knows that will at least momentarily end the abuse. And once the confession is made, the cops have achieved victory and they are heroes within the closed, and self-validating police sub-culture. It is after the accused has recovered from the interrogation that he realizes the mistake he has made. When he retracts his confession it is already too late.

Police decide early on in an investigation who they think the guilty party is, and then search for any evidence that supports their beliefs. When there is a confession, this absolute conviction in their minds becomes invincible.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me)


In the book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) the authors go into detail about how false confessions come about:

The bible of interrogation methods is Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, written by Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, Joseph P. Buckley, and Brian C. Jayne. John E. Reid and Associates offers training programs, seminars, and videotapes on the 9-Step Reid Technique, and on their Web site they claim that they have trained more than 300,000 law-enforcement workers in the most effective ways of eliciting confessions. The manual starts right off reassuring readers that "none of the steps is apt to make an innocent person confess," and that "all the steps are legally as well as morally justifiable":

It is our clear position that merely introducing fictitious evidence during an interrogation would not cause an innocent person to confess. It is absurd to believe that a suspect who knows he did not commit a crime would place greater weight and credibility on alleged evidence than his own knowledge of his innocence. Under this circumstance, the natural human reaction would be one of anger and mistrust toward the investigator. The net effect would be the suspect's further resolution to maintain his innocence.

Wrong. The "natural human reaction" is usually not anger and mistrust but confusion and hopelessness—dissonance—because most innocent suspects trust the investigator not to lie to them. The interrogator, however, is biased from the start. Whereas an interview is a conversation designed to get general information from a person, an interrogation is designed to get a suspect to admit guilt. (The suspect is often unaware of the difference.) The manual states this explicitly: "An interrogation is conducted only when the investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect's guilt." The danger of that attitude is that once the investigator is "reasonably certain," the suspect cannot dislodge that certainty. On the contrary, anything the suspect does will be interpreted as evidence of lying, denial, and evading the truth, including repeated claims of innocence. Interrogators are explicitly instructed to think this way. They are taught to adopt the attitude "Don't lie, we know you are guilty," and to reject the suspect's denials. We've seen this self-justifying loop before, in the way some therapists and social workers interview children they believe have been molested. Once an interrogation like this begins, there is no such thing as disconfirming evidence.

That is the most disturbing thing about false confessions. Even when it has been proved that someone did not commit a crime to which they have falsely confessed, the police who were involved in eliciting that confession rarely, if ever, see the light and admit their mistake.

Referring to innocent people freed from prison (and in these cases, not just due to false confessions) the authors of Mistakes were Made write:

Of all the convictions the Innocence Project has succeeded in overturning so far, there is not a single instance the police later tried to find the actual perpetrator of the crime. The police and prosecutors just close the books on the case completely, as if to obliterate its silent accusation of the mistake they made.

In the light of DNA evidence, eyewitnesses admitting they lied, and numerous other indications that they had the wrong person, the police never decide to seek the person who actually did commit the crime. It is quite a sickening realization that police, lawyers, and others within the justice system, are more motivated by justifying their behaviour and saving face than getting at the truth.

The false confession is far more common than most people could imagine. Within police forces, every action and utterance is validated and justified by a subculture that convinces its members that they can do no wrong. As with all instances of self-justification by humans, when all facts point to police officers being wrong about someone from whom they have elicited a false confession, the likelihood of them seeing the light and trying to right the wrong is almost non-existent.

A Different Type of False Confession


Kyle Unger was recently acquitted after serving 14 years in prison for a crime that he didn't commit. He was convicted largely on the basis of a confession he made to undercover police officers posing as gang members. Unger made the confession to impress the "gang members" in the hopes that he would have the chance to work with them. However, the confession contained numerous details that police knew were false. In the light of evidence to the contrary, they latched on to the confession and sent him away for close to 15 years.

The attorney general in Manitoba has stated that there will be no compensation forthcoming.

The false confession should not disqualify Unger for compensation, just as no other single consideration should disqualify a wrongly incarcerated person for compensation. It's as if we are saying that only those who didn't break under interrogation and long years in prison for a crime that they didn't commit should be compensated for those lost years. This is ridiculous. Lost years are lost years regardless of how the person is wrongly convicted and sent to prison. The blame should not be placed on the person who was interrogated, coerced, and yes, in some cases, tortured into making a false confession.

The false confession has become a way for prosecutors and police forces to absolve themselves of any blame when a wrongly incarcerated person is freed. More importantly, it is a way for governments to avoid paying compensation to people who have sacrificed years, and sometimes decades, of their lives. All because of the arrogance and short-sightedness of police forces that leaned on a suspect until he broke and then, with the assistance of a prosecutor, rode the false confession to a conviction despite all evidence to the contrary.

No police officer wants to be told that something he considers to be a valuable tool—interrogation— in his arsenal against criminals is likely to send a good number of innocent people to prison. But we need to pay more attention to the phenomenon of false confessions, or they will continue to send innocent people to prison, and the reputation of police forces will continue to suffer.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Way Home by George Pelecanos

The Way Home by PelecanosI suppose that it was inevitable: a weak effort from George Pelecanos. The Way Home is the first book I have read by Pelecanos that did not succeed in creating a memorable world full of interesting characters and a fast moving storyline.

The Way Home is maudlin and disappointing. It would likely not have been published had it been submitted by a first-time writer. But Pelecanos has built up a solid fan base and loads of credibility, and can get away with the occasional clunker.

Pelecanos has never been a great writer in much the same way that many of the famous noir writers were not great writers. A solid, entertaining story teller? Absolutely. But skewed syntax and more than a few strangely constructed sentences always stand out in a book by Pelecanos. But it usually doesn't matter, because he has that talent for putting together believable characters in a few deft strokes and then pushing the narrative forward to an explosive if somewhat predictable conclusion.

His most recent effort, however, takes the speechifying that has started creeping into his novels as of late to a whole new, utterly tiresome level. The characters here are flat and will elicit barely any empathy from readers. And the main premise around which the book is built blasts away the suspension holding up any semblance of belief.

We have a father who has always been hard on his son, and the son who predictably goes off the rails, starts using drugs, and gets locked up in a juvenile detention home. Flash forward about eight or nine years, and dear sonny boy is out in the world working for his father's carpet installation business. The classic bag of money that has been at the heart of so many crime novels makes an appearance here. But the way that things play out just isn't likely.

Every plot twist seems to be introduced for the sole purpose of allowing more clich├ęd pablum to flow from the gobs of the characters. We don't even really get to see the protagonist in action except for a petty juvenile crime that originally landed him in reform school in the early part of the book. Too much effort is devoted to the cause that the author is championing.

We get it: Pelecanos believes that the way young offenders are locked up is wrong. That's the whole problem. It comes across as a book-long rant upon which a weak story is hung. As opposed to a theme that is smoothly woven into the storyline.

Not only is it a weak effort, but it made me look back and reassess some of the other books that Pelecanos has written. Perhaps a similar storyline played out numerous times was not something to criticize at the time because the results were so entertaining. But when none of the elements that make so many of Pelecanos's books enjoyable are present, the same revenge ending with two individuals tooling up to commit justifiable murder falls flat.

Why exactly does a writer like Pelecanos produce a book like this after so many effective efforts? Perhaps he just ran out of the creative juice that spurred him on for so long. Maybe it was a rush job for a paycheque. Maybe the success from his work on The Wire and his energy being taken up elsewhere didn't allow him to put in the necessary time.

If you've heard that Pelecanos is a very good crime writer, you should still believe it. Just don't start with this novel. In fact, give The Turnaround a miss as well—his most recent novel before The Way Home also suffers from some of the same problems. Start with one of his classics, such as Hard Revolution or The Big Blowdown. Let's hope this trend doesn't continue and Pelecanos gets back to writing the great crime novels that made him so popular in the first place.