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Failed justice system

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Dara Purvis
Forced confessions part of a failing justice system

The sniper prosecution is continuing in Virginia because as Attorney General John Ashcroft put it, they have the "best law" -- meaning they allow execution of juveniles, important so we can kill 17-year-old John Lee Malvo as soon as possible.

As the investigation began, newspapers trumpeted Malvo's confession to being the triggerman in most of the shootings. Not much attention was paid to the objections Malvo's attorneys have already begun raising about the methods of obtaining the confession: a seven-hour interrogation of a minor without his attorneys present.

Malvo's case, however, seems hardly out of normal procedure, and is not the most egregious example of police conduct. Recently, the confessions of five young men to a brutal rape and murder in New York City's Central Park were proven to be false. After 14 to 30 hours of questioning each, all five, at the time between 14 and 16 years old, produced detailed and seemingly damning admissions of guilt. At the time, the police seemed unconcerned that significant pieces of information were false or changed over the course of questioning. Of course, now that DNA evidence and a voluntary confession from a convicted serial rapist and murderer proves he was the one who committed the crime, the factual inaccuracies of the confessions seem more obvious.

Sadly, these kinds of mistakes are increasingly common. In recent years, much attention has been paid to new DNA evidence coming to light to prove the innocence of men imprisoned for decades, serving time for crimes they did not commit. According to a recent New York Times article, 20 percent of those exonerations based on DNA evidence are proving the innocence of a person who confessed to the crime.

How can such things happen? As normal, law-abiding citizens, we have an intuitive sense that we would never admit to a crime we didn't commit. But this intuition is demonstrably false -- the tactics used by the police and the types of people that are generally the leading suspects combine to create an atmosphere in which even a made-up confession can seem the best course of action.

First of all, those arrested generally don't possess the intellectual and psychological strength to resist questioning by authority figures. Few of us attending an elite private university can imagine what it is like to be bullied for 30 hours by men with guns. False confessions are given much more often by minors (questioned, of course, without parents or attorneys present) or mentally disabled persons. Often the suspects are barely literate, and know little of their constitutional rights -- they just know that the police are the authority, and must be obeyed.

The Miranda rights, which theoretically informs a suspect of their constitutional rights, have become a mere 20-second blur of words for the police officer to get out. In one way, the Miranda recitation has given police more leeway -- as long as the rights are read to the suspect, no gray area of constitutionality exists. In any case, most arrested persons ignore them -- three quarters of those arrested waive their rights by opening their mouths.

The mere length of interrogation is important -- psychologists, both those who support and criticize police interrogation tactics, note that the longer a person is kept in a room being questioned, the less their coping mechanisms and even rational thought remain. Thirty hours of straight questioning could drive anyone to a breaking point.

Questioners work very hard to give suspects the impression that, if only they would confess their sins, they can receive absolution and return to their normal lives. No one is ever told, "Tell us you did this so we can lock you up for the rest of your natural life." The suspect is convinced that the only way the questioning and suspicion will end is if they admit guilt.

The police often feed suspects bits of information which subsequently are incorporated into a confession. Generally, an admission begins with a simple statement: "I did it." The police then draw out more details from the suspect, often after showing them pictures of the crime scene or diagrams of the area -- then the information provided by the police becomes part of the web proving their guilt.

For more stubborn suspects, courts allow outright lying by the police: eyewitness reports that don't exist, even claiming they have DNA evidence proving the suspect committed the crime.

What do all these factors add up to? A criminal justice system designed to manufacture false information rather than to seek the truth. How can we trust a system that takes advantage of people so much? But in the neverending march to provide affluent white America with an illusion of safety, it doesn't matter how many innocents are locked up. Sometimes, lying to a suspect produces an actual confession -- so why worry about the lowlifes who didn't commit the crime they were picked up for? They probably would have committed a different crime anyway.

The conservatives are winning their "culture war." They have convinced the few Americans who bother to vote that times were better when the police could beat a confession out of the person they had nominated for the crime. We don't even pay lip service to the idea of rehabilitation anymore.

Instead of teaching convicted criminals how to rejoin society as productive citizens, the explicit justification of incarceration is punishment, and to "get them off the streets"-- lock them up and throw away the proverbial key.

This is why false confessions are becoming so common -- the police are under extreme pressure to find the culpable person and lock them up. So what if the convict is under 18 -- better to find such aberrations of humanity early. This is why draconian pieces of legislation like California's Three Strikes law have been passed.

Judges no longer have any discretion in sentencing. It doesn't matter what your crimes are or why you committed them -- if you have three, we want you out of our sight for the rest of your life. The United States has more than 2 million people in prison right now -- more than any other country, both in actual numbers and per capita rates of incarceration.

But those are the dirtbags, the losers. None of us would ever commit a crime. And if the police accused us of committing a crime, well, they'd be right. And they'd have our confession to prove it.

Editorial columnist Dara Purvis is a senior majoring in political science. She may be reached at (213) 740-5665 or

Copyright 2002 by the Daily Trojan. All rights reserved.
This article was published in Vol. 147, No. 55 (Wednesday, November 13, 2002), beginning on page 4 and ending on page 6.

Da recommends tossing
Da to drop charges { December 4 2002 }
Dna ignored { April 19 1989 }
Failed justice system
False confessions { October 18 2002 }
Frameup of youth
Three convincted central park jogger case sue nyc { December 7 2003 }

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