Criminal Law

Police Supply Details for Some False Confessions

But how else could the defendant have known that? In his confession, he described the crime scene in detail. How could he have known that much about it? Thus boomed the prosecutor, imploring the jury to find the defendant guilty of the crime he confessed to months ago. After all, a confession is an admission of guilt, isn't it? Not necessarily, according to a recent study.

Confessions Don't Always Prove Guilt

Interrogation scenes in the movies and on TV provide most people with their understanding of how police obtain confessions. Many people assume that the person wouldn't have confessed if they didn't commit the crime. Another assumption is that the person wouldn't have known all the details of the crime scene unless they were there and committed the crime.

One recent study of false confessions shows these assumptions are often wrong. Law school professor Brandon Garrett published a paper in the Stanford Law Review about his study of 40 confessions which were later found to be false. DNA evidence confirmed the innocence of these defendants.

How Did They Know the Details?

Almost every defendant who confessed - 38 out of 40 - gave extremely detailed, very specific descriptions of when, where, and how the crime occurred. You'd think that only someone who committed the crime would have known of these details. Or maybe someone who investigated the crime.

Professor Garrett believes that these innocent persons knew of these details only because they had been given them during police interrogation. This doesn't mean the police did so intentionally. It does raise the question of how much faith a judge or jury should have in the reliability of a confession.

Among the critical issues which the trial judge will often have to decide is whether the person's confession is admissible as evidence for the jury to consider. A suspect is entitled to be warned of hisĀ Miranda rights before interrogation. These include the Constitutional rights to remain silent and speak with an attorney. If these warnings were not given, or the rights violated a confession could be kept from the jury.

Profile of the False Confessor

Professor Garrett's study showed that more than half of the persons giving false confessions - 26 out of 40 - had a mental disability or were under age 18. This is important. Persons of limited mental ability, education, or young age, may confess because of intimidation or fear. They also might not understand the significance of a confession.

Determining the Legitimacy of a Confession

Criminal procedure law permits and in some cases requires the judge to determine the mental fitness of the defendant. If there is any question about the defendant's mental fitness, the defense attorney should request a competency hearing. A mentally unfit person can't be put to trial. Nor can a mentally incompetent person plead guilty.

If the defendant decides to plead guilty, and no competency hearing is requested, the judge also must inquire to the basis for the plea. The judge must determine if the defendant entered the plea knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. A mentally unfit person is unable to do this. The judge must also inquire into the factual basis supporting the plea. If these facts include a confession, the judge should inquire into the reliability of the confession.

The limited inquiry a judge makes when considering a guilty plea is no substitute for a full competency hearing or the challenge of a confession in a suppression hearing. If someone you know has been charged with a crime, and you believe the person suffers from a mental disability or immaturity, you should ask the defense attorney to request a competency hearing. If defense counsel refuses to request one, you should send a letter to the court asking the judge to order a competency hearing.

Too often a defendant's mental fitness becomes an issue only after conviction. At that point it is extremely difficult to have the conviction reversed. In the meantime the defendant will have suffered the punishment for a crime he might not have committed.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My child, a college student, made a confession to the police, but I don't think he understood his rights. Can you help get his confession thrown out?
  • How often are suppression hearings successful? If not, can confession validity still be challenged during a trial?
  • Is it possible for someone with a mental disability to make a valid confession?
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