It may be difficult to understand why a person would confess to something they did not do; however, false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions and are present in 25 percent of overturned convictions.
False confessions result from coercive police interrogation techniques. Some techniques include confusing the defendant, lying to the defendant about evidence, threatening the defendant with lengthy prison sentences, and physically or mentally exhausting the defendant.
Juveniles under 14, people with mental illnesses, and people with low IQs are more likely to admit guilt when they are innocent, but it could happen to anyone under the right circumstances.
Additionally, the longer the interrogation, the more likely someone is to falsely confess. In fact, 84% of false confessions occur after more than six hours of questioning.
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.
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.
False testimony by other witnesses also perpetuates wrongful convictions. Similar to coerced confessions, people may lie about witnessing a crime because of coercion. They may have been threatened by law enforcement or offered something in exchange for lying. It is not uncommon for prosecutors to offer leniency to someone involved in a crime in exchange for testifying against another person.
Witnesses also lie for their own reasons. They may be seeking revenge, protecting themselves if they did something illegal, or protecting a vulnerable friend or family member.
Relevant MTIP Cases: