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This post is part of the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. As an innocence organization, we work to combat systemic racism because we know that there are numerous barriers between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and justice that exist solely because of racism. This campaign aims to highlight some of those barriers. Today’s topic is coerced confessions:

About 20 percent of all exonerations based on DNA evidence relied on a police-coerced confession to wrongfully convict. Confessions are coerced in many ways; namely, threatening violence, lengthy sentences, or even the death penalty. And if the suspect is a BIPOC, other factors make them potentially more susceptible.

The Central Park Five

One of the most famous examples of this is the Central Park Jogging case and the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five.

About 30 teenage boys spent the evening in New York City’s Central Park on April 19, 1989. Some were simply hanging out, and others were injuring people in the park, throwing rocks, and harassing transients. That same night, a 28-year-old White woman, Trisha Meili, was jogging in the park when she was attacked and brutally raped. All of the teenage boys in the park, who were predominately Black and Hispanic, became suspects.

Kevin Richardson, 14, Raymond Santana, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Korey Wise, 16, emerged as the accused and became known as the Central Park Five. They did not commit the crime. They did not see a jogger. None of their DNA was consistent with the DNA from the crime scene. Yet, all five boys were wrongfully convicted and served six to 13 years in prison for the attack. This was made possible by coerced confessions.

The Central Park Five case demonstrates the power of coercion because all five boys confessed. During the 14-30 hours of interrogation that each boy experienced, several coercive tactics were employed, including leading a boy to believe that another boy was getting beat up in the next room and that he would be next if he did not cooperate, to convincing them that they could go home if they would just say what happened. Ultimately, their confessions did not match the crime, but they were the sole basis for the wrongful convictions nonetheless.

Watch “When They See Us” director, Ava DuVernay, cast members, and Central Park Five members discuss the case:

On December 19, 2002, the Central Park Five convictions were vacated following a confession from Matias Reyes, a serial rapist whose DNA was consistent with the DNA from the crime that occurred 13 years prior.

Are BIPOC more vulnerable to the tactics used to extract coerced confessions?

Stereotypes about BIPOC and criminality increase pressure in an interrogation room. The interrogator may be acting on the stereotype that BIPOC commit more crime, and the person being interrogated may be more nervous and more likely to falsely confess because they know this stereotype exists.

Additionally, BIPOC know their chances at trial are worse because of racism, which may entice a BIPOC to admit to something they did not do and accept a plea deal as opposed to risking a guilty verdict and facing a harsher sentence.

Daniel Jackson

This was the case for Daniel Jackson in 2010. He was being interrogated for murder when one of the detectives, Keith McDaniel, explained that he would lose if the case went to trial.

An appellate Judge in Illinois who overturned McDaniel’s conviction characterized the exchange between McDaniel and Jackson as coercive: “Detective McDaniel … told Jackson that he needs to confess that he killed Clifford Harvey in self-defense because he cannot get a fair trial in Peoria because he is a young, African American male—something he has no power to change. He told him that the judges and the potential jurors have been reading the media coverage of what is going on in the south end, they are sick of it, and they will be working off of stereotypes when he appears before them for trial. Moreover, not only will the stereotypes apply to him, they will also negate the credibility of any witnesses he might call.”

Justice Mary McDade, wrote in her concurrence that she could not imagine a more coercive scenario.

“The bone-chilling subtext in McDaniel’s virtual monologue is that the police could pick up any young African-American male and he could be convicted, even if he does not confess, because the judges and jurors will be driven by media-hyped stereotypes and either will not hear or will not be open to any defense he would put on,” McDade wrote. “It is hard to imagine anything more blatantly coercive than telling a suspect, whether it is true or false, that he needs to confess to killing the victim, claim self-defense and minimize his damages because, even if he is innocent, our system of justice will not work for him because he is young and black and male.”

Coerced confessions impact people of all races and ethnicities. But, as is the case with other #barriers2innocence, racism takes an already difficult barrier to overcome and makes it worse. The justice system is so stacked against BIPOC that it can be used as a coercion tactic to coerce confessions.

Action Steps:

  1. Watch “When They See Us” on Netflix.
  2. Research and support efforts that would require interrogations to be recorded and preserved.

Thank you for participating in the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. Tomorrow’s topic is cross-racial witness misidentification.