False Confessions

 
Brendan Dassey, of the acclaimed Netflix series "Making a Murderer."

Brendan Dassey, of the acclaimed Netflix series "Making a Murderer."

In more than 20% of exonerated cases the defendants made incriminating statements or gave outright confessions to crimes that DNA evidence later proved they did not commit. There are many reasons why defendants give false confessions, including:

  • Ignorance of the law
  • Fear of violence
  • Infliction of harm by interrogator
  • Threat of harsh sentence
  • Misunderstanding of situation
  • Duress
  • Coercion
  • Intoxication
  • Diminished capacity
  • Mental impairment

The Cause

     
    • Juvenile confessions are often unreliable, because children can be easily manipulated or do not fully understand the situation. Both juveniles and adults think that they can go home if they just confess.
    • People with disabilities are likely to give a false confession, because they are tempted to accommodate and respect authority. In addition, most interrogators lack the training to question people who are mentally disabled, which can lead to false confessions.
    • Lengthy interrogations or exhaustion can also cause people to falsely confess. Some also believe that they can confess now and go home and worry about proving their actual innocence later.
    • Those threatened with long prison sentences or death.

    Mental State of the Confessor

     

    All states should follow Minnesota’s lead in mandating all interrogations to be electronically recorded with audio and video. These recordings help both prosecutors and defense lawyers accurately portray the confession of the accused while also identifying false confessions.

    The Remedy

     
    Chris Ochoa, falsely confessed to his friend's murder.  

    Chris Ochoa, falsely confessed to his friend's murder.  

    In 1988, an Austin, Texas, Pizza Hut employee was raped and murdered in her work place. Police investigators sought the assistance of and investigated other Pizza Hut employees in their efforts to solve the crime. As part of their investigation, officers questioned employee Chris Ochoa. Mr. Ochoa eventually falsely confessed to the crime after being threatened with the death penalty.  Along with his confession, he also implicated his friend Richard Danzinger in the murder as part of his deal to avoid the death penalty. He went on to testify against Danzinger at Danzinger’s trial.

    Years later the true perpetrator, a man named Achim Marino, came forward to police and admitted to the crime. At first he was ignored, but he had several details about the crime and even knew where some additional evidence could be found. He told police he did not know Danzinger or Ochoa and had no idea why Ochoa would confess to the crime. Eventually DNA testing confirmed, that Marino was the true perpetrator and Ochoa and Danzinger were exonerated.

    One factor that is so significant about this case is that Chris Ochoa was not mentally handicapped nor did he have a low IQ. His confession was a result of coercive police tactics in the interrogation room. He was interrogated for 16 hours and threatened with the death penalty. He has gone on to graduate law school at the U of Wisconsin and is now a practicing attorney.

    False Confession: A Case Study