False confessions

Great story on 60 Minutes last night about all the coerced confessions of juvenile defendants in Chicago.  You really should watch it.  A couple observations…

1) One former district attorney felt really guilty about his role and said that he had just never believed that anybody would actually confess to a crime they didn’t commit?  Really?!  He seemed genuinely remorseful, but how do you learn anything about our criminal justice system and actually believe that?

2) Once someone is strongly suspected, much less convicted, it’s amazing how much people want to believe they are guilty.  The most disturbing part of this piece to me Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez who still insisted these kids (well, men now) were guilty based on their coerced confessions when DNA evidence showed the semen of a convicted rapist/killer (now deceased) in the victim.  She suggested that perhaps he had stumbled across the body– in a vacant field!!– and committed necrophilia thereby placing his DNA at the crime scene.   I’m outraged that somebody with such a prominent role in the criminal justice system would get on 60 Minutes and offer something so ludicrous with a straight face. Seriously?!  You seriously have to wonder how any poor Black man (race and poverty were never mentioned in the story, but let’s be honest here) can hope to have justice with a person like that in charge.

3) On a related note, great story in Slate last week by Emily Bazelon on the tunnel vision of police and prosecutors that leads to so many false convictions.  This really is a national shame that we need to systematically address:

It’s natural for police and prosecutors to want to ease public fears. And it’s also natural for them to stick with the evidence that supported their preferred explanations. As University of Wisconsin clinical law professor Keith Findley shows in his excellent 2010 article Tunnel Vision, the phenomenon “is the product of a variety of cognitive distortions,” chief among them confirmation bias. In other words, we tend to give weight to evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. “Although such confirmation-biased information is often less probative than disconfirming information might be, people fail to recognize the weakness of the confirming feedback they receive or recall,” Findley writes. He cites studies finding that “police officers who are convinced that a suspect is lying are very resistant to changing their minds” and often “rate disconfirming or exonerating evidence as less reliable or credible than guilt-confirming evidence that supports their initial hypotheses.”

I called Brandon Garrett, the law professor who wrote the book on wrongful convictions and why they happen, and he pointed out that police and prosecutors have no obligation to pursue alternative explanations, or even to follow a particular method of investigation or keep a record explaining the course they’re taking. Which means it’s close to impossible to hold them accountable for their errors…

Police too, Garrett thinks, should have to record every witness interview they do; perhaps they should also keep notes about how their thinking evolves or doesn’t. Garrett also suggested giving the defense more resources to do their own investigations or requiring police and prosecutors to open their files to the defense. Tunnel vision isn’t going away. But to protect the innocent, we should diminish its dark power.

Yes indeed.  Its time we started taking justice seriously in our criminal justice system and not just convictions.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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