innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 1 of series
FALSE CONFESSIONS ARE A RISING CAUSE OF WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

National Trend Troubling

By Bill Moushey and Elizabeth Perry
Innocence Institute of Point Park University.

Despondent over finding his parents brutally murdered, Gary Gauger was interrogated for 19 hours until admitting hypothetically he could’ve committed the double-homicide in Northern Illinois during a drunken black-out.

The five New York City teenagers convicted in the infamous Central Park Jogger case were questioned intensively -the longest for 28-hours- until all but one offered shaky confessions inconsistent with the facts.

After Harrisburg. Pa. area cops convinced Barry Laughman, who had an IQ near 70 and the mentality of a 10-year-old, they had evidence he killed his neighbor, he confessed in 1987.

While these cases occurred in different places and under different circumstances, all of them have one frightening thing in common – people confessed to heinous crimes they did not commit and spent years in prison until their innocence was proven.


The Psychological ‘Third Degree’

Back in the heyday of old school crime in America and in the movies ever since, it was normal for police to shine hot lights over suspects in dank rooms during grueling interrogations called the “third degree” or in some cases, to literally beat a confession out of them.

Extreme instances of those practices ended decades ago in detective bureaus, but are now back in the public eye with repeated allegations of torture by U.S. troops toward enemy combatants in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. Military experts have said much of the information extracted through torture is at best unreliable.

While few allegations of physical torture have been made in Western Pennsylvania or elsewhere, there have been hundreds of complaints that non-violent coercive interrogation techniques have enabled skilled law enforcement officers to elicit confessions out of unsuspecting suspects, many true, but some false.

“The interrogation often becomes an exercise in trying to confirm the suspicion that the suspect is guilty, rather than trying to figure out the truth,” said Steven Drizin, an expert on false confessions and the legal director of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Ill.

Dr. Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. who has written extensively on false confessions, says intense psychological techniques can also yield flawed information.

The interrogation methods have long been known as the “good cop/bad cop” approach which experts call maximization and minimization that are buttressed by U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the years that allow police to lie to suspects during interrogations to manipulate confessions out of them.


It starts with scare tactics when the bad cop maximizes the situation until “the suspect is led to believe there is independent evidence of his guilt and that things will be particularly onerous if he doesn’t cooperate,” Dr. Kassin says.

Frightened into submission, the good cop cajoles a suspect into a confession by minimizing the crime, suggesting, “perhaps it was accidental, perhaps it was provoked, perhaps he was pushed into it by his friends, perhaps he was under the influence of drugs at the time,” Dr. Kassin says

Children, the mentally ill and the retarded are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of interrogation techniques that produce false confessions, according to a report by Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan Law School in a study of 250 wrongful convictions in the United States from 1989 – 2003.

Dr. Gross found 44 percent of exonerations of children in his study and 69 percent of those involving the mentally retarded had false confessions.

While those numbers are dramatic, Mr. Drizin says under the right circumstances anyone can be “worn down by coercive police interrogations.” There are literally hundreds of examples.

In 1993, William Kelly, a mentally retarded alcoholic with a history of manic depression confessed to a Harrisburg murder, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison until a serial killer confessed to the crime, DNA confirmed it and Mr. Kelly was released.

In 1998 after a detective in Chicago bought two boys, 7 and 8, McDonald’s Happy Meals and questioned them without their parents present, they confessed to the murder of Ryan Harris--only to be proven innocent before trial when DNA testing showed an adult man had committed the crime.

In 1999, after 19 hours of interrogations where Prince Georges County, Maryland cops repeatedly showed Keith Longtin pictures of his dead wife, he confessed to her rape and murder. He was imprisoned until DNA evidence proved the crime was committed by a serial rapist.

In 2001, Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger of Austin, Texas confessed to the rape and murder during the robbery of a 20-year-old woman who worked in a Pizza Hut. Police convinced Mr. Ochoa to confess to avoid the death sentence and he implicated Mr. Danziger, his friend. After a dozen years in prison, DNA testing exonerated both of them.


Could He Have Done It?

Mr. Gauger was a recovering alcoholic living on the back of his parents’ farm in Clark County, Ill, south of the Wisconsin border. Along with farming, his father repaired and collected vintage motorcycles.

He said he hadn’t seen his parents in a few days when a customer happened by asking about a motorcycle part. When Mr. Gauger went to ask his father about it, he found his father’s body, his throat slit.

Mr. Gauger called police, and they discovered his dead mother’s body rolled up in a carpet outside, her throat slashed too.

Because he found the bodies and stood to gain materially from his parents’ deaths, Mr. Gauger was the only suspect.

Mr. Gauger denied having anything to do with the murders. After hours and hours, police began to pose different scenarios and claimed they had overwhelming forensic evidence proving he’d done it.

Mentally exhausted from 19 hours of interrogation, Mr. Gauger finally agreed with a police-created scenario that had him killing his parents during a drunken black-out and he was jailed on capitol murder charges.

Mr. Gauger quickly realized he was tricked into the confession, but was unable to get it suppressed. A jury used it to convict him and sentence him to death.

Three years later, a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang from Wisconsin became a government witness in a federal racketeering case and told authorities his associates killed Mr. Gauger’s parents.

After almost four years in prison – a year and a half of it on death row – Mr. Gauger was released and charges against him were eventually dropped.

Injustice in Central Park

After the Central Park Jogger beating and rape, which left a woman in New York City near death, police arrested five boys after intensive interrogations, most of them without their guardians present.

A detective admitted he lied about the existence of fingerprint evidence to get the boys to confess. Then they began to tell on each other.

Two were mentally retarded, one said in his confession he literally flew around Central Park in a blue car.

None of the boys confessed to raping the victim, and each described the attack as happening in different areas of the park.

After a hung jury in their first trial, all of them were convicted and sentenced to as long as 11 ½ years behind bars. While they were locked up, one of them met a serial rapist who confessed to the attack. Later, DNA testing confirmed it. Convicted as boys they were freed as men.

Fingerprints and Confession

At 24, Mr. Laughman lived with his parents, rode a bicycle to work and was still afraid of the dark.

When his next-door-neighbor and distant relative was brutally raped and murdered, police considered Mr. Laughman a suspect because there were three bruises on the victim’s arm that could have been made by his pinkie finger contorted from a childhood accident.

Alone with Laughman for an hour, the detective told the mentally retarded man that they found a “whorl pattern” fingerprint at the scene and that his finger had such a pattern.

Not knowing all fingers have whorl patterns, Mr. Laughman began agreeing with everything the cops told him to escape punishment, eventually confessing to the crime in a lengthy series of yes and no answers to questions.

With no other evidence, Laughman was convicted of the killing and sentenced to life in prison.

After an investigation by Pete Shellem of the Harrisburg Patriot-News uncovered an untested DNA sample, Mr. Laughman proved his innocence and was freed.

Mr. Laughman’s attorney, Bill Costopoulos has filed suit against the government on Mr. Laughman’s behalf. “We are hoping to bring some justice to this individual who was wrongly convicted, it cost him 16 years of his life.”

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