New York Man Acquitted of Murder after Courts Invalidate False Confession

“If you’re innocent, you have nothing to hide.”

With Ferguson in the news, the public’s attention is on what police are doing in the streets. However, police conduct in interrogation rooms shouldn’t be ignored. Police interrogators often engage in tactics that involve wear downing down and even outright lying to suspects to obtain confessions. The problem is that such confessions are often false and lead to innocent people being imprisoned or placed on death row.

Court Invalidates False ConfessionThis problem has long been ignored by judges. Until recently, judges shared the common assumption that suspects do not confess to crimes unless they are guilty. Of course, history has shown that this assumption is wrong. The Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, and Red Scare, among many other political disasters in history, have demonstrated that people can be “persuaded” into confessing crimes they didn’t commit. Even without physical abuse, suspects can be pressured into making false statements against themselves.

For instance, in 2008, a man in Rensselaer County, New York, was arrested for the death of his four month old son. The man, Adrian Thomas, allegedly threw his infant son, Matthew Thomas, onto a bed in frustration. Prosecution believed that Thomas’s actions caused trauma and the subsequent death of the boy. After Thomas was arrested, police allegedly told Thomas that his baby would die if he didn’t explain how Matthew hit his head and that the mother could be arrested as well. Unknown to Thomas, his son was already brain dead.

Thomas was sentenced to 25 years after a jury watched his video confession. However, in February 2014, New York’s highest court overturned the guilty verdict and suppressed the video confession because police tactics were too coercive. In June 2014, a second jury, who weren’t shown the confession, acquitted Thomas of the second degree murder of his son.

Police Interrogation Is More Likely to Ensnare the Innocent than the Guilty

Recent studies have shown that current police interrogation tactics often produce false confessions more than real confessions. Police will often tell suspects that unless they talk, there will be consequences. Police say they need information to save a victim’s life even though the victim is already dead. Alternatively, police will threaten to arrest someone else if the suspect doesn’t talk. Of course, if the police had probable cause to arrest someone they would have done so without the suspect’s help. In either case, suspects like Adrian Thomas will be pressured, or coerced, into confessing.

This raises the question as to why suspects confess to crimes they haven’t committed. Some defendants, like Thomas, feel it is necessary to save or help someone else. Other suspects are told that the police already have evidence linking the suspect to the crime. Studies reveal that these suspects will often confess after being told there is evidence, even though the suspect is innocent. The innocent assume that the evidence will eventually prove their innocence and that the false confession will get them home earlier. In most cases though, juries give the false confession more weight than physical evidence.

Work the System So the System Will Work

So what can you do to avoid being falsely imprisoned? Always exercise your Miranda rights. Remain silent except to demand an attorney. Cooperating with interrogators will not prove your innocence because many interrogators have already decided that the suspect is guilty. Most questions will be designed to make the defendant look guilty, regardless of how the defendant answers.

More importantly, you should not assume that the criminal justice system will eventually reveal your innocence. Although the legal system is designed to produce answers, it will only do so if the parties disagree about what those answers are. The best way for a criminal defendant to avoid giving a false confession is to disagree with the police. Innocent people who stand up for their rights will have their innocence vindicated. Innocent people who confess to crimes they didn’t commit will be punished to fullest extent of the law.

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