In The New York Times, David K. Shipler wrote an eye-opening column caled “Why Do Innocent People Confess?” detailing interrogation procedures and tactics, ethical and otherwise, that lead people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
One of the anecdotes had police helping a 16-year old suspect change his story to fit circumstantial evidence they had regarding a murder after his version, which he was making up, didn’t fit.
They wanted a diagram of the crime scene, he later told his court-appointed lawyer, Richard Foxall, but whatever he drew was so inaccurate that the police never produced it. When he described escaping in one direction after the killing, they corrected him, because they knew from witnesses that the shooter had gone the opposite way. When he didn’t mention an alley nearby, they told him about it, and he incorporated it into his statement. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” said one officer, as Felix recalled to his lawyer.
So, they demanded, where was the gun? Felix denied having a gun. “That’s when they really got out of control and started yelling at him,” Mr. Foxall said. “He started to feel personally threatened.” Slyly, he made up something demonstrably untrue: that he had left the gun with his grandfather. “I thought this was brilliant,” his lawyer said, because it discredited the tale. “He doesn’t have a grandfather. Both grandfathers are dead.”
Once the police had badgered a rough murder confession from Felix, they taped it.
Charges against him were eventually dismissed when he had an airtight alibi: at the time of the murder, he was in a juvenile detention facility. The situation led to the Oakland (Ca.) police changing its interrogation taping policy so that all of the questioning is recorded, rather than just the confession.
The piece is an adaptation taken from Shipler’s new book “Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America.”