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Why do people confess to crimes they didn't commit?

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ  - The use of confidential informants is one of the most controversial issues confronting Multnomah County prosecutors as DA Rod Underhill takes on a plan to ensure that his office does not pursue convictions that can later be overturned.Almost one in three people who are convicted of major crimes and later cleared by DNA evidence falsely confessed to the crime.

Saul Kassin realizes that to most of us, that intuitively makes no sense. Why would so many people confess to something they didn’t do?

The answer, says Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and often a paid expert on false confessions, lies in the details of the interrogation process, where police can ratchet up pressure on suspects. Police and prosecutors say the whole idea that police coerce suspects into incriminating themselves with confessions has become an overblown myth.


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What both sides can agree on is that false confessions have become one of the most controversial topics in the wrongful conviction debate. Eighteen years ago, Oregon was the site of the nation’s most sensational false confession case, which hinged on a confession the accused claimed had been coerced out of her.

Kassin has studied the factors that can result in a false confession. Research, he says, has determined that teens and people with mental health problems such as depression are more likely to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Teens, he says, are by nature more focused on short-term gains than long-term consequences. If that means a confession can get them out of a stressful interrogation room, some will admit to a crime they didn’t commit.

Interrogations that take many hours, with stress and pressure steadily increasing, sometimes lead to a false confession, Kassin says. In one study, Kassin showed that in 125 cases of false confession, the average length of interrogation was over 16 hours. Nationally, the average interrogation for all suspects is less than two hours.

When police lie and tell a suspect they have evidence that appears to make the suspect look guilty, a surprising number of innocent people confess, Kassin says.

Ninety-five percent of false confessions contain facts about the crime that, in theory, only someone involved with the crime could know, according to Kassin. That’s hard to refute in a courtroom.

“What the judge and jury can’t get past is, ‘How did he know those things?’ “ Kassin says. “Tapes will answer the question how he knew those things.” What the tapes show, according to Kassin, is that police slipped some of those crime details into their interrogations.

In many cities, police hand over to prosecutors a videotape or audio tape which contains only the confession, not the entire interrogation. The truth, in Kassin’s view, often is revealed by the interrogation techniques, not the confession itself.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia now require that entire interrogations be taped and that interrogators be on camera, not just suspects.

Portland police have recorded all their interrogations for years, according to Detective Sgt. Joe Santos. Santos says he prefers it that way.

“For us there’s nothing more powerful than the defense saying, ‘You browbeat my client,’ and saying, ‘You might want to watch the video,’ ” he says.

Tapes aren’t the answer

But even a confession on tape is open to interpretation. The 1997 manslaughter trial of Portland-area resident Linda Stangel hinged on her insisting that a taped confession she made to police was coerced.

Stangel, then 23, and boyfriend David Wahl had driven to Ecola State Park, just north of Cannon Beach, on a rainy day, according to Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis. Wahl never returned. His body later washed ashore on a Washington beach.

Marquis says there were no witnesses to what happened and little evidence. Months after the crime, after Stangel had moved to Minnesota, she agreed to accompany two Oregon State Police detectives up to the cliff, where she told them that Wahl had fake pushed her and she had pushed back in reaction, and he had tumbled over the cliff.

Back at a motel, the detectives asked Stangel to repeat the story after they turned on an audio recorder. She did, and included the statement that Wahl had made “a loud, annoying scream” as he fell.

“She panicked,” Marquis says. “The irony is if she had just said there was a terrible accident, we were screwing around and he slipped and fell, I’m not sure she would have even been charged.”

But the story Stangel told detectives convinced Marquis that Wahl had not fallen over the cliff as part of an accident. Marquis is firmly convinced that what Stangel told detectives was elicited, but not coerced.

“She confessed on tape,” he says. “People have some compelling need to confess, and that’s what good cops do.”

In court, Stangel said she had not even accompanied Wahl up the trail the night he died. The two had argued and she had stayed behind in their van, and eventually drove off.

Stangel’s lead witness was a national expert on false confessions, and her defense was based on the idea that detectives pressured her into the confession by taking her back up the trail, where she was anxious because of her fear of heights.

“I knew I had to tell them something or I wasn’t leaving this place,” she said.

Stangel was convicted of manslaughter and received a 75-month prison sentence. Among the national media that focused on the case was a Dateline television show that asked readers to vote on whether Stangel’s confession was true or false (the majority believed the confession). Though she has been released from prison, Stangel still has her supporters around the country. And one of the reasons, Marquis says, is the mythic status that false confessions have achieved.

“The narrative is that — because of popular culture, and people wanting to believe that police are bullies — (they) coerce false confessions,” Marquis says.

Marquis says false confessions occur often in unsolved murder cases by people with no connection to the crime. But coerced false confessions, Marquis says, are “extraordinarily rare. It’s about as rare as human rabies.”

Portland detective Santos says he’s heard defense attorneys claim that full interrogation videos might not tell the whole story, implying that police might have said something to encourage a confession while the suspect was in the holding cell or walking to the bathroom.

But that works both ways, according to Santos.

“We have guys on the walk down to the jail say incriminating things and we’re thinking, ‘We just interviewed you for two hours and you didn’t say anything.’ “

Taping entire interrogations isn’t absolutely the rule throughout Oregon, says Portland criminal defense attorney Chris O’Connor.

“There are lots of exceptions,” O’Connor says. State law only requires videotaping interrogations for Measure 11 crimes, and small police and sheriff’s departments are excluded.

If false confessions are happening here, O’Connor says, they probably exist in cases of less-serious offenses such as drug possession, which rely heavily on police officers’ notes.

“You could have a huge problem with one particular officer or one particular unit or one particular kind of case and nobody would ever know,” O’Connor says.

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