Anomaly, yes, but reality, too: the enigma of false confessions

You did it. You know you did it and, moreover, you’re aware that we know you did it. You failed a polygraph test (so we say, but that’s not actually true). We have witnesses willing to offer testimony against you (well, maybe we don’t, but you can’t know that).

Now, maybe you had a justifiable reason for committing the crime you did, and we might be able to empathize with that and see if we can mitigate any downside consequences. Why don’t you just concede to wrongdoing and let us see if we can somehow help you? Because, if you don’t … .

All of the above are part and parcel in what one long-time criminal investigator and now author/defense consultant says is the standard playbook used by law enforcers bent on — above all else — extracting a criminal confession from an individual sitting before them in an interrogation room.

That room, which ex-homicide detective James Trainum says is also referred to colloquially as “the box,” is the breeding ground for what some commentators say can be a most disturbing outcome.

Namely, that is a false confession uttered by an innocent person, which Trainum and others say happens more often than many people might reasonably suspect.

In fact, officials with the National Registry of Exonerations, which has information on a whopping 1,900 wrongful convictions, say that 234 of them were tied to false confessions.

Extrapolated, that comes to 12%, a number that might give many Texans and other people across the country due pause to reflect on something that just isn’t right.

Trainum thinks greater transparency and systemic rigor — e.g., mandatory videotape use for all interrogations and more intense standardized training for all police questioners — will go far toward ensuring that guilty people are, in fact, really guilty.

Obviously, the timely and sustained involvement of a seasoned and aggressive defense attorney can be a material factor in ensuring that justice prevails, as well.

For obvious reasons, criminal investigators often don’t like to see an attorney at the inception of an interrogation. That they don’t speaks volumes as to why a criminal suspect should enlist the assistance of proven counsel without delay.