False Confessions: Why do they happen?

In light of the Montana Parole Board’s recent decision to deny clemency for Barry Beach, we want to highlight one of the greatest causes of wrongful convictions: false confessions.

In cases like Barry Beach, about 30% of wrongful convictions involving DNA evidence are caused by false confessions. Why would someone falsely confess? Below are two examples and the reasoning behind this unfortunate contributing cause of wrongful incarceration.

DAMON THIBODEAUX

One example from the Innocence Project success files is the story of Damon Thibodeaux. 

The Crime

Damon Thibodeaux was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of his 14-year old half cousin, Crystal Champagne, in the New Orleans area on July 19, 1996. On September 28, 2012, Damon was the 300th person exonerated through DNA testing after 16 years in prison, of which 15 years were spent on death row. The contributing causes of Damon’s wrongful conviction were eyewitness misidentification and false confession.

Watch a video about Damon Thibodeaux's story below, narrated by actor Jeremy Irons.

Read the details of Damon Thibodeaux's case here.

The Interrogation

When Damon was brought in for questioning by police, he initially denied any involvement in the murder. But after over 8 hours of interrogation, of which only 54 minutes was recorded, Damon confessed to the crime for consensual and non-consensual sex and for beating and murdering Champagne.

In his recorded statement, Damon provided non-public details that were provided to him by police, including the nature in which she had been murdered by strangulation with an electric cord. During the interrogation, Damon stated that the cord he used was white. In fact, the cord at the crime scene was red, indicating that police fed him information but guessed the wrong color in his recount of the murder. No DNA evidence found by forensics examiners, including semen from the victim’s body, matched Damon. Instead, a far-fetched theory as to how the murder could have happened was developed by the case detective and taken as fact by the court. And while two eyewitnesses identified Damon in a photo array, they had already seen his photo in the media, which greatly hinders the validity of their testimony (mistaken identification is another leading cause of wrongful convictions).

Ultimately, Damon’s legal defense team concluded that he falsely confessed under the stressful conditions of the interrogation, suffering exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fears that he would be put to death. 

BARRY BEACH

Another notable wrongful conviction case caused by a false confession is that of Barry Beach.

Watch the Dateline NBC feature about Barry Beach's case here.

The Crime

In June of 1979, recent high school graduate Kim Knees was brutally murdered in Poplar, MT. The case remained unsolved until 3 1/2 years later when classmate Barry Beach falsely confessed to the murder several states away under a separate investigation in Louisiana. No DNA evidence from footprints or the bloody handprint at the crime scene matched that of Barry or Kim. In addition, no eye witnesses tied Barry to the scene of the crime that night. Indeed, the only evidence they had to convict Barry of the murder was his confession, which took place under questionable circumstances.

The Interrogation

In early 1983, Barry Beach falsely confessed after a 7 hour interrogation with no water at a police station in Louisiana. Barry's testimony was inconsistent and did not match the evidence found at the scene of the crime. A police interrogation and false confession expert testified at Barry's trial that his recitation of the murder did not fit the facts of the crime, and that it did not reveal any new evidence that was not already public knowledge regarding the case. The expert found the confession unreliable, but in 1983 Barry was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison without parole. (Importantly, Barry also falsely confessed to the same Louisiana police for the involvement of three other homicides which were later determined to be false confessions.)

Barry was granted a new trial by Honorable Judge Wayne Phillips in 2011 and on December 7, 2011, Barry's conviction was overturned and he was released. But in May 2013, the Montana Supreme Court overturned Judge Phillips' decision and Barry was sent back to prison to serve the rest of his 100 year sentence without parole. Despite wide public support, including a letter in support of Barry's release from the governor of Montana, Barry's application for clemency was also denied in June 2014 by the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole.

You can follow the timeline of events regarding Barry's case under our News tab here.

Psychology of False Confessions

According to the Innocence Project, Damon and Barry's experience mirrors the trends that occur in nationwide wrongful conviction cases caused by false confessions. Factors include:

•duress 
•coercion 
•intoxication 
•diminished capacity 
•mental impairment 
•ignorance of the law 
•fear of violence 
•the actual infliction of harm 
•the threat of a harsh sentence 
•misunderstanding the situation 

Regarding his false confession, Damon had this to say (minutes 5:25 - 5:59 in video):

"I used to be one of the people who believed that someone would never confess to something they didn't do and society as a whole believes that. But yet, here I am, here I sit.

You know, there's a false confession out there that I gave for a murder that someone else committed. Until you go through it, you just won't know. You know how much of an interrogation can you take? You know everyone has a point and when you break, you'll tell them whatever they want to hear. And I would've, I would have told them anything they wanted me to tell them."

Recording of Interrogations

The Innocence Project has made great strides in improving the criminal justice system, including the recommendation of mandatory electronic recording of interrogations so that incidents like this can’t happen. It is considered the best reform that can be enacted to greatly diminish wrongful convictions from the earliest steps of criminal investigation.

To date, Montana is one of several states to enact a recording of interrogations policy, which benefits the innocent and law enforcement alike.

Read more about policy reforms for mandatory recording of interrogations here.

Learn more

The Innocence Project is an incredible resource for information about wrongful convictions. To learn more about this topic, click the links below:

Understand the causes: False Confessions

Fix the System: False Confessions & Mandatory Recordings of Interrogations

False Confessions Fact Sheet

 Stay Tuned...

 We will be sharing more information with you about false confessions by experts on the subject so be sure to check for updates over the next few weeks.

 

 Sources:

Centurion Ministries. (n.d.) Barry Beach. Retrieved from http://www.centurionministries.org/cases/barry-beach/Innocence Project (n.d.). Damon Thibodeaux. Retrieved from http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Damon_Thibodeaux.php

Innocence Project (n.d.) Understanding the Causes: False Confessions. Retrieved from http://www.innocenceproject.org/understand/False-Confessions.php

Montanans for Justice (n.d.) Barry Beach. Retrieved from http://montanansforjustice.com/app/

One For Ten Films (2013, April & May). Damon Thibodeaux - False Confession [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbzlLadbMDQ