False Confessions: Do They Really Happen?

March 13, 2019

Many people assert they would never admit to something they hadn’t done. And they believe that anyone who confesses to a crime must be guilty. The reality of false confessions, however, is much more complex.

 

What is a False Confession?

A false confession is an admission of guilt for a crime for which the person who confesses is not responsible. An inculpatory statement is one in which the person makes a statement which connects them to a crime in some way.There are three different types of false confessions:

  1. Voluntary, which are given freely without prompting by law enforcement
  2. Compliant, which are given to avoid or mitigate punishment or escape a stressful situation
  3. Internalized, in which the person who confesses believes they have committed the crime

For example, let’s say you are brought in by police for questioning about a gun-point robbery of a convenience store. You have not committed this crime. Yet the police tell you they found your fingerprints on the counter. Also, an employee has positively identified you as the robber. And police found money in your wallet that they can trace back to the store.

Instead of remaining silent or asking for a lawyer, you may try to explain why the police found that evidence. Maybe you tell them you’ve previously been to that store. You’ve touched the counter, you’ve received change from the store, the employee must have seen you there before. Maybe you even tell them you were there on the day of the robbery.

Now, you’ve essentially given them a false confession, or at the very least an inculpatory statement. Your statement can be used against you at trial in most circumstances, even if the police had none of the evidence they claimed to have had. Many people don’t realize that law enforcement can lie about what evidence they have during interrogations.

 

How Do False Confessions Happen, and How Often Do They Occur?

Researchers who study false confession have identified several factors which contribute to or cause such statements:

  • Real or perceived intimidation, force, or threats by law enforcement
  • Compromised reasoning ability due to exhaustion, stress, hunger, substance use, mental limitations, younger age, or limited education
  • Devious interrogation techniques
  • Fear that failure to confess will yield a harsher punishment

The Innocence Project reports that more than 1 out of 4 people convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement to law enforcement. As discussed in our blog last year, law enforcement in New York must now electronically record custodial interrogations with individuals accused of serious crimes. This includes the most serious non-drug felonies, including homicides and violent felony sex offenses. The law was passed to eliminate disputes in court as to what actually occurred during the interrogation, and hopefully avoid false confessions.

 

Case Study

In 1995 in Putnam County, New York, the body of 12-year old Josette Wright was discovered. During a police investigation, Andrew Krivak confessed that he and Anthony DiPippo had raped and murdered Josette. However, no physical evidence connected Krivak or DiPippo to Josette or the crime scene. Krivak and DiPippo, tried separately, were both convicted of Murder in the Second Degree and Rape in the First Degree.

DiPippo’s conviction was later vacated based on ineffective assistance of counsel. DiPippo’s first trial attorney had previously represented Howard Gombert, another suspect in Josette’s rape and murder. At a retrial, DiPippo was again convicted; however, he had been precluded from introducing evidence to the jury that Gombert was an alternate suspect. Again, DiPippo’s conviction was vacated, and at a third trial in 2016 he was acquitted.

In addition to the alternate suspect evidence, DNA found at the crime scene did not implicate either DiPippo or Krivak. However, Krivak remains in custody to this day. While in January 2019 his case was remanded for a hearing on newly-discovered evidence, one judge cited the “detailed, voluntary confession” Krivak gave to police following his arrest in previously denying a motion to re-open the case. Despite evidence of his actual innocence, Krivak remains in custody because, in part, of his false confession.

 

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