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Today's New York Times takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon of false confessions. The focus is on Eddie Lowery, a man who confessed to rape and was imprisoned for 10 years until DNA evidence proved his innocence. According to a new study, over 40 others confessed to crimes that were later proven false by DNA evidence since 1976. Why do they do it? The study points to interrogation techniques, some malicious others unintentional, that bring innocent suspects to their knees.

  • Shows the Role of Contamination, writes James Hart at Kansas City's Crime Scene blog: "How does this happen? Well, the study blames 'contamination' -- where police either intentionally or accidentally introduce details about the crime during interrogation. So, when the suspect 'confesses,' their story is more convincing because they can repeat details they've already heard."

  • Defendants Feel Absolutely Trapped, notes Ashby Jones at The Wall Street Journal

The notion that such detailed confessions might be deemed voluntary because the defendants were not beaten or coerced suggests that courts should not simply look at whether confessions are voluntary, Mr. Neufeld said. “They should look at whether they are reliable.”

An example involving a man named Eddie Lowery shows how contamination can occur. After he was arrested and accused of committing a rape, Lowery took a lie detector test to prove he was innocent, but the officers told him that he had failed it.

“I didn’t know any way out of that, except to tell them what they wanted to hear,” he recalled. “And then get a lawyer to prove my innocence.”

  • And Once Convicted, It's Difficult to Exculpate Oneself, writes the article author, John Schwartz, at The New York Times: "Proving innocence after a confession, however, is rare. Eight of the defendants in Professor Garrett’s study had actually been cleared by DNA evidence before trial, but the courts convicted them anyway."
  • This Is Shameful, writes Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: "When an innocent person is convicted and sent to prison on the basis of a false confession, particularly for violent crimes with high rates of repeat offenses (like rape), it isn't just that his life (and his family's lives) are permanently altered, often in devastating ways; the survivors of the crime(s) are denied real justice, and the actual perpetrators of the crime(s) are left free to continue offending, creating even more victims. This is an entirely avoidable scenario, as long as only demonstrably reliable confessions are used. But procedures that ensure demonstrably reliable confessions are simply not in place in most of the country." She goes on to call for more states to require videotaping of interrogations, something only 10 states do now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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