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False confessions { October 18 2002 }

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October 18, 2002
Newsday (New York, NY)


By Ellis Henican

It's the troubling question that hangs over the Central Park jogger case, now that we are finally getting closer to the truth: How on Earth could five teenage boys confess to a crime they didn't commit?

A crime as horrible as this one.

A vicious rape and assault that shook the whole city, an attack that came to symbolize an entire, awful era in New York.

"I'd never confess to something I didn't do," we tell ourselves, and I, personally, am sure I never would. I was sure, anyway, until I spent some time yesterday talking with Steven Drizin.

Now I have my doubts.

A professor at Northwestern University School of Law and an attorney with the law school's Children and Family Justice Center, Drizin just may be America's leading expert on the false confession.

By the time I got off the phone with him, I was ready to admit I was the Washington sniper.

Drizin first got into the false-confession business when he represented an 11-year-old boy who had confessed - falsely, it turned out - to the murder of an 83-year-old neighbor. Drizin has now built a jaw-dropping database of other false-confession cases, which turn out to be a whole lot more common than anyone imagined.

At the top of Drizin's shameful roster: the five teenage boys from Harlem - convicted sex assaulters all - who confessed to attacking the Central Park jogger in 1989.

"It is almost an absolute certainty they were not involved in this rape," Drizin said yesterday from his office outside Chicago. "That would require a scenario so unlikely, it's impossible to believe. You also have to explain how five teenage boys could sexually assault a woman and not leave a shred of physical evidence at the scene. Why is there no DNA? Teenage boys can't make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches without leaving a mess behind."

These doubts are getting harder to brush aside, as Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau completes his long-running review of these convictions. But still, the incriminating statements linger.

Why would these kids make these damaging admissions? Four of them on videotape? Several with their parents in the police interrogation room?
To answer that, Drizin said, you have to understand the psychology of modern police interrogation. It's come a long way from the days of the rubber hose, but it's even more effective now.

"In the beginning of an interrogation," Drizin explained, "a suspect comes into the room thinking he can emerge unharmed. The guilty suspect believes he is going to keep what he knows about the crime to himself. The innocent suspect believes, 'I have nothing to worry about. I didn't commit the crime.' In some ways, the innocent suspects are more gullible than the guilty ones. They are more willing to talk to police.

"The challenge for an interrogator is to get the suspect from a high confidence level to a place where his confidence is so low it becomes rational for him to confess."

Many techniques are available.

"The room itself is designed to foster a sense of isolation and dependence," Drizin said. "It'll be a small room with little furniture and no clock. No table between the interrogator and the suspect. A table blocks the interrogator from moving in and invading the suspect's space.

"Almost immediately, the interrogators are trained to confront the suspect by accusing him of the crime. They are trained to interrupt any denials on the part of the suspect. The more a suspect denies, the more he becomes psychologically attached to the notion of his innocence. So you will have the police officer cutting him off, sticking his hands in the suspect's face, removing all denials from the discussion."

Then come the false evidence ploys, designed to make the case seem rock-solid. "We found your fingerprints at the scene." "Other witnesses put you there." "Your co-defendants are all pointing at you."

"This will often make the guilty suspect resigned to the fact that he is guilty," Drizin said. "For the innocent suspect, it sends him into some kind of emotional crisis. 'These guys really think I did this?"How can I prove to them I'm innocent?"How did my fingerprints get on the crime scene?"My DNA? How could it possibly get there?'"

The interrogator can provide a plausible explanation.

"Maybe you were drunk." "Maybe you had a blackout."

"The point," Drizin said, "is to get the suspect talking about how this crime might have happened."

Then comes what the experts call "minimization."

Said Drizin: "The police officer gives the suspect a face-saving excuse for committing the crime, a description that is less morally blameworthy than, 'You intended to kill or rape and planned it out like an evil person would.'"

That was a key technique in the Central Park interrogation, Drizin said. "It was, 'We don't think you were the ringleader here. We think you were present at the crime scene but somebody else took the lead and you played a smaller role. We think you're a good person who made a mistake of judgment, but we need to hear it from you.'"

Now talk into this camera here!

There may be promises of leniency - expressed or implied. There may be outright threats. There is always the suggestion that, with the right kind of statement, this unpleasant encounter can be brought to an end.

"At some point in time," Drizin said, "the innocent person is so overwhelmed by the whole process, he just wants it to end. To make it stop, he has to say, 'I was there, and I did it, and I'm sorry for it.'

"Almost certainly, that's what happened here. These boys said, 'I did it,' and there was no turning back."

Return to Northwestern Law in the News home

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Failed justice system
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Frameup of youth
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