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False Confessions Examined

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It’s hard to imagine that an innocent person would ever confess to a crime that he or she did not commit… hard to imagine, that is, until you read about Frank Sterling’s interrogation. Sterling was isolated and manipulated for almost twelve hours before making an incriminating statement around 5 a.m. He spent 18 years in jail for a murder he did not commit, until the real killer finally confessed. As a recent New York Magazine article by Robert Kolker succinctly states, “[i]n the criminal justice system, nothing is more powerful than a confession.” However, as Kolker points out, in 63 out of 259 DNA exonerations, an innocent person confessed to the crime. Kolker explains, “[o]verconfidence can blind investigators to evidence suggesting that the suspect is innocent. The pressure to resolve cases quickly and tidily can have a similar effect, especially in high-profile cases. Simply wearing suspects down is another issue: At some point, a given suspect will say anything just to make the immediate discomfort stop.”

Videotaping confessions can help ensure that fewer innocent people, and more guilty people, are convicted. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project continues to hope that Pennsylvania will join the 18 states that already videotape custodial interrogations.

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