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Making false confessions a real problem

The latest false confession has come to light in the Victoria Marten’s case where her mother confessed, untruthfully, to a horrendous crime against her own daughter. She told officers she and her boyfriend had participated in the abuse, drugging, rape and murder of her own child. And she and her boyfriend were charged with all those crimes based on her confession. But it wasn’t true. None of it was true. She and her boyfriend were not even present when her daughter was killed.

Margaret Strickland

Margaret Strickland

Many of us wonder how someone could confess guilt to something they had never done, especially something this horrific. As a matter of fact, it’s not that unusual.

False confessions are a real problem. According to the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law, one out of four people wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence also made a false confession or incriminating statement against themselves. One out of four.

What causes someone to do this? False confessions happen most often when an accused person is of lower mental capacity. They can be manipulated by the questioner, usually members of law enforcement who are trained on questioning techniques. The confessor often feels coerced or threatened by the questioner during lengthy interrogations where exhaustion sets in. People who confessed to crimes they did not commit often report that they felt confessing was the only way to be released from the interrogation; they felt certain our criminal system was so fair that they would surely be released when the real perpetrator was apprehended. Although many people who give false confessions are young or have mental impairment, many are also fully functioning adults who find themselves in a terrible situation and cannot figure out what to do.

Those who study false confessions, like the Innocence Project that has helped hundreds of innocent prisoners gain their release, have found the electronic recording of interrogations, from beginning to end, is the single best reform available to prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions. In New Mexico not all interrogations are recorded. While New Mexico law does require recording of interrogations, it is not consistently followed by law enforcement because there are no penalties for not recording the interrogation. This loophole regarding recordings needs to be closed by our lawmakers.

Why is recording so important? It helps a jury, judge and the parties determine if there was manipulation in the interview. Tone of voice, implied threats and evidence of exhaustion are all captured on a recording. A recording also captures clearly who provided the details of the crime.

If every detail of the crime during the interrogation comes from law enforcement rather than the suspect, that increases the likelihood of a false confession. Crucial details like these cannot be reliably captured in a report or in later trial testimony. Only a recording of the entire interrogation – from start to finish – can reveal what happened.

Recording interrogations is only half the battle. The accused needs a criminal defense attorney with time and resources sufficient to investigate the case, who can freely talk to all the witnesses, review forensic evidence and listen to the interrogation.

Hindering one side’s access to information and witnesses or threatening lawyers for doing motions work obstructs the basis of our criminal system’s search for truth. It increases the chance of false confessions and wrongful convictions. And important to remember, for every false confession conviction, there remains a true perpetrator who walks the streets free.

In this case, thankfully, the interrogation was recorded and the criminal defense lawyer was given sufficient investigation resources. This needs to happen in every case. The district attorney and the criminal defense attorney worked together and brought the false confession to light. Because of this work on both sides, we are now on the road to find out the complete truth of this terrible crime.

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