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Do People Give False Confessions? All Too Often, Experts Say

By Emma Cueto | February 3, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

Huwe Burton's conviction in 1991 for allegedly murdering his mother in her Bronx apartment might have seemed cut and dried from a distance: He confessed to the crime while in police custody. But the truth was far more complicated — so much so that a judge last month tossed the conviction altogether, ruling that Burton's confession had been coerced.

While it might appear as though false confessions are an unlikely and uncommon occurrence, the Innocence Project, which helped represent Burton, has found that 1 in 4 people wrongfully convicted and later exonerated with DNA evidence had confessed to the crime or made an incriminating statement despite being innocent.

Moreover, psychology research conducted since the first DNA exoneration in 1989 has found that most people will confess to crimes they did not commit if under enough pressure to do so.

"Sleep deprivation, isolation, deprivation of food and water, promises and threats such that you believe it is in your own self-interest to confess — those are human decision-making [factors] that are exploited in an interrogation setting," psychology professor Saul M. Kassin told Law360. "I would argue that the average person, under those circumstances, is vulnerable."

In Burton's case, his confession to his mother's murder came after lengthy questioning by three New York Police Department detectives who kept the 16-year-old Burton from speaking with his father and threatened him with additional charges if he did not confess, according to the Innocence Project. While sleep-deprived, he signed a statement that he stabbed his mother in an argument, the Innocence Project said.

Burton recanted the confession immediately afterwards, and the Innocence Project claimed that police ignored aspects of the confession that did not line up with physical evidence and overlooked another possible suspect, who was arrested driving a car stolen from Burton's mother around the time of the murder, and who has since died. A jury, however, didn't buy Burton's story, and convicted him in 1991.

Nineteen years later, Burton was released from prison, but the fight to overturn his conviction continued. The fruit of those efforts came on Jan. 24, when Bronx Supreme Court Judge Steven Barrett exonerated Burton based on evidence from a two-year investigation by his legal team and the Bronx District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit that cast doubt on the police investigation and confession.

As Kassin laid out in a 2015 research paper, interrogations are often designed precisely to increase a suspect's anxiety and to position confession as an attractive option. As the pressure builds over hours of questioning — research suggests that more than 70 percent of cases of false confessions involve interrogations lasting more than six hours — people get tired and more prone to shortsighted decision-making, Kassin explained.

Paradoxically, he said, innocent people are actually more likely to confess in these circumstances, believing that the evidence will ultimately clear them precisely because they know they are not really guilty.

"The mind of an innocent person tells them that everything is going to work itself out," he said.

This idea is often reinforced, he said, if police bluff about having fingerprints or other physical evidence, leading innocent people to be even more convinced that evidence will clear them.

But for people such as Burton, that evidence doesn't always come in time, if it ever comes at all.

Both Kassin and Brian Leslie, a forensic expert who specializes in coerced confessions, highlighted that a popular and long-standing method known as the Reid technique encourages police to conduct interrogations — which are classified as fundamentally different than witness interviews — with the presumption that the suspect is guilty.

John E. Reid & Associates Inc., which has trademarked the technique, continues to stand by its methods and denies claims that it encourages law enforcement to get a confession whether or not it is true, saying, "The purpose of an interrogation is to learn the truth."

The organization also says that it recommends police do not conduct "excessively lengthy" interrogations or deny suspects' physical needs, and that police take special care when questioning juveniles and people with mental illness and treat all suspects with "dignity and respect." It also recommends investigators corroborate information from a confession, according to a document it supplied to Law360 in lieu of comment.

According to Leslie, interrogators often zero in on things that make a suspect vulnerable, such as problems with drugs or alcohol, that they can exploit. They can also ask questions that can implicate a suspect no matter how the person answers, or steer the conversation by using specific language — for instance, substituting "gun" for "weapon" — until the suspect adopts the same terms.

None of these techniques, Leslie was careful to note, constitutes police misconduct. Taken altogether, though, he said that they can be coercive enough to prompt an innocent person to confess.

Leslie suggested that one thing that could help is training police on more analytical investigation methods, making them less likely to lock onto suspects and to ignore potentially exculpatory evidence.

Changes are happening. According to Brandon Garrett, a professor at Duke University Law School, who has researched coerced confessions, federal interviewers are now using updated techniques that attempt to draw out information from suspects without "putting words in their mouths."

Making it standard to record interrogations would also go a long way, he added, allowing greater scrutiny of the conditions that led to a confession.

Right now, that isn't a universal practice. In a study that Garrett conducted on law enforcement agencies in Virginia, he found that only nine of the 116 policies he obtained from the agencies made recording an entire interview mandatory. Half made it an option but did not encourage it. Additionally, very few policies laid out guidelines for interviewing juveniles, and none included guidelines for people with intellectual disabilities, the study found.

In general, though, Garrett said that recording is becoming more standard for law enforcement.

However, experts say that not all false confessions happen in police interrogation and that the decisions made by prosecutors can play a huge role.

"I think that the locus of concern when it comes to false confession has arguably shifted from police and the tactics that they use to prosecutors and the tactics that they use," said Clark Neily, vice president of criminal justice at the Cato Institute.

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, between 90 and 95 percent of federal defendants plead guilty; other statistics suggest that the rate is similar at the state level. Neily said he finds this "highly suspicious."

Neilly noted that prosecutors have a great deal of discretion, and they can use this to file long lists of charges that add up to serious prison time to the point where people would rather take a deal than take the risk.

Just as in a police interrogation, at some point admitting guilt becomes the choice that makes the most sense, Neily said.

"If you're talking about false confessions and you're not talking about the tactics that prosecutors use, I think you're missing the boat," he said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

Update: This story has been updated with additional information from John E. Reid & Associates Inc.