Telling Police What They Want to Hear, Even if It’s False
In his second day of questioning by Los Angeles police detectives, David Allen Jones sealed his fate.
Although never admitting to murder, he repeatedly incriminated himself in the deaths of three prostitutes. By the time he got to describing what happened with the third woman, Mary Edwards, the story came easily.
He paid her for oral sex, he said, then she asked for more money and they got into a fight.
“Another knock down, drag out,” Jones said, according to a transcript of the interrogation. "[I] kind of grabbed her, you know. Well, I just choke her. I kind of choke her out.”
On the strength of the incriminating statements, a jury convicted Jones of the three killings. But there was a problem: Jones did not kill them.
Eleven years later, DNA and other evidence exonerated Jones and a judge voided his conviction in the killings. He was freed in March.
Police now believe at least two of the slayings were committed by accused serial killer Chester Dewayne Turner.
The fact that Jones has an IQ of between 60 and 73 -- giving him the mental capacity of an 8-year-old -- made him particularly vulnerable to making false, incriminating admissions, according to legal scholars, sociologists and criminologists.
Studies and surveys have found that both minors and the mentally impaired are more likely to make false confessions, in part because they are more vulnerable to suggestion.
Together they made up more than half of suspects who falsely confessed in a study published this year by Northwestern University law professor Steven Drizin and UC Irvine criminologist Richard Leo.
The scholars reviewed 125 cases in which individuals were exonerated after giving false confessions, and found that 40 of them, or about 32%, were minors and 28, about 22%, were mentally retarded.
“They are more likely to go along, agree and comply with authority figures -- to say what the police want them to say -- than the general population,” said Emory University law professor Morgan Cloud.
Cloud co-wrote a study that found the mentally impaired, even those deemed to be only mildly retarded, are largely incapable of understanding police admonitions of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer.
The LAPD, like most police departments, does not have a special protocol for dealing with mentally retarded suspects during interviews, according to a spokeswoman. But both age and mental capacity can be used by jurists to determine whether suspects intelligently waived their rights and whether their statements are admissible in court.
Cloud said police officers sometimes do “not really recognize” that suspects are mentally retarded.
“Lots of police become very non-noticing, if it’s left up to them to decide who’s normal and who’s not,” said Richard Ofshe, a UC Berkeley sociologist who has reviewed 700 to 1,000 confessions.
But experts stressed that false confessions are not the sole province of children and the mentally retarded. Even the able-minded can succumb to psychological pressure and make erroneous admissions during intense police interrogations, research has found.
“False confessions are not an anomaly,” said Leo, who has done dozens of studies of interrogations and confessions, including the one with Drizin. “They happen with regularity.”
Once a suspect makes self-incriminating statements that are admitted at trial, the chance of a conviction multiplies, Drizin said.
“Jurors simply can’t get over their reluctance to believe that anybody would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, especially murder,” he explained.
Of the first 128 people nationwide exonerated by DNA evidence discovered after their convictions, 28% had made false confessions or admissions, according to New York’s Innocence Project.
Coercive police interrogations are the single biggest reason innocent people confess to crimes, Ofshe said.
John Reid & Associates, an Illinois-based firm that says it has trained more than 100,000 investigators in interrogation techniques, insists that police can spot an innocent suspect because he or she would get angry at false accusations. Still, the firm advises “extreme caution” in dealing with the mentally impaired.
Caution is also supposed to be used when interrogating juveniles, who make more false confessions than adults.
Michael Crowe of San Diego County was only 14 in 1998 when he told police he had killed his 12-year-old sister in Escondido.
Police had decided Michael was suspicious because he played video games after his sister’s death -- “inappropriate grieving,” the police called it. A friend of Michael’s also eventually confessed, and a third teenager gave enough incriminating evidence that he too was charged with the crime.
Charges were dropped on the eve of trial when police found the girl’s blood on the filthy sweatshirt of a mentally unstable drug user and petty criminal who had been prowling the victim’s neighborhood on the night she was killed.
Michael Crowe later explained why he had lied about the murder. “Well, they basically showed me I had no other choice,” he told NBC two years ago. “The police took me in a room, separated me from everything I knew ... and basically put me in a place where I believed they were my only friends, and the only way I was going to avoid prison was by telling them what they wanted to hear.”
Drizin and others say that common police interrogation techniques can backfire, leading to false confessions.
“Once the Miranda warnings are given, [detectives] make an immediate accusation that the suspect is guilty,” said Drizin, who reviewed dozens of false confessions. “They are allowed to lie at this point.”
If the crime was well-investigated, police may cite the actual evidence they have accumulated against the suspect. If there is little real evidence, a detective may pretend that police have fingerprints, DNA or witnesses who have implicated the suspect, experts said. Often the detective will interrupt when the suspect protests his innocence.
After overstating the case against the suspect, the detective may try to convince him that it is to his benefit to confess. Although officers are not permitted to offer leniency in exchange for a confession, veiled promises and veiled threats are often made, experts said.
In Jones’ case, a detective showed him photographs of the crime scenes during his first interview, which was not taped. Drizin said that such preliminary interviews can provide innocent suspects with details of the crimes that may end up in the final confession.
During a second interview, which was taped, the detective repeatedly reminded Jones of admissions he had made during the earlier interview.
“That is not uncommon,” said Drizin. “In the first interview, police will use a gamut of techniques to get him to make certain admissions. They don’t tape it because the kinds of techniques they use are not likely to be understood by juries, who view them as over the top.”
The detective in Jones’ case testified in court that the first session wasn’t taped because the Los Angeles County Jail prohibits tape recorders.
LAPD officials said the department plans to review the Jones case but currently has too little information to comment on the interrogation.
Jones never confessed to killing the three women, but he admitted under detectives’ prodding to having had sex and smoking crack cocaine with the victims at the places where their bodies were found. He said he fought with them, putting each in a police-style chokehold. He insisted they were alive when he left them.
In many cases of reported false confessions described by Leo and Ofshe, innocent people were convicted because, like Jones, they made incriminating statements that linked them to the crime, even though they stopped short of a confession.
Legal experts and social scientists say the best way to ensure that confessions or admissions are truthful is to require detectives to tape them from the Miranda warning in the first interview until the end of all subsequent interviews. Some states, including Alaska and Minnesota, already require that.
Thomas P. Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney who served as co-chairman of an Illinois commission on capital punishment, found in a national survey that most police agencies leave the decision on whether to record an interview to the officer in charge. Still, he found, detectives customarily taped their interrogations in serious crimes because the confessions would then be more likely to be admitted at trial.
“I am a fan of the police,” Sullivan said. “The policemen I know do not coerce confessions and they don’t perjure themselves. I believe that in 10 years, virtually all police will be recording [interrogations with suspects in custody] for their own good.”
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Police Department said detectives are required to tape interrogations only in officer-involved shootings or use-of-force investigations that are covered by a consent decree. Yet video or voice recordings of confessions would reduce false admissions by as much as 90%, Ofshe said, because it would stop coercive tactics.
The UC Berkeley sociologist said: “Tape recording will prevent police from doing the extraordinary things that need to be done to cause an innocent person to falsely confess.”
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Researchers surveyed mentally retarded subjects to determine whether they would be able to understand the warnings against self-incrimination immortalized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Miranda decision and used by police everywhere.
Percent who correctly understood that...
Confession can be used against suspect
Disabled subjects: 27%
Nondisabled subjects: 91%
Police cannot threaten suspect
Disabled subjects: 8%
Nondisabled subjects: 82%
Police cannot force suspect to talk
Disabled subjects: 12%
Nondisabled subjects: 77%
There is no penalty for refusing to talk
Disabled subjects: 2%
Nondisabled subjects: 73%
Judge cannot force suspect to testify
Disabled subjects: 18%
Nondisabled subjects: 41%
Source: University of Chicago Law Review