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True Stories of False Confessions

August 28, 2009 | by Jasmine Rangel
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Would you confess to a crime you didn’t do? 

Plenty of people have. A new book, edited by Rob Warden and Steven A. Drizin, the directors of Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) at Northwestern University School of Law, is full of articles and book excerpts detailing false confessions made by innocent men and women. 

“Of all the factors involved in wrongful convictions, this is the most difficult to comprehend,” said Warden, CWC executive director. “Why would somebody confess to a crime he or she didn’t commit?”  

“True Stories of False Confessions” makes clear why that happens all too often. The book details dozens of cases in which men and women of varied ages, races and education levels confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. The accounts are divided into categories bearing such titles as “brainwashing,” “inquisition” and “exhaustion.”

“Individually, the articles might be dismissed as anomalies,” Drizin, CWC legal director, said, “but together they reveal a disturbing phenomenon that the criminal justice system should address. The single most important reform is requiring police to electronically record interrogations.”

With the variety of people described in the book, it’s clear there is not one type of person susceptible to falsely confessing. “Your common sense might tell you that you don’t want to confess,” Drizin said. “But after hours and hours of intense grilling by police, you’ll say anything to stop the questioning.”

“There are untold numbers of these cases,” Warden said. “The examples in the book are just a few in which there have been exonerations. Each story was chosen because a talented journalist happened to write a compelling story about it. There are many, many other cases that simply didn’t come to the attention of an interested writer.”

Among writers whose works appear in the book are John Grisham, Alex Kotlowitz, Dana L. Priest, Sydney H. Schanberg, Maurice Possley, Steve Mills, John Conroy, Don Terry and Thomas Frisbie. 

The Center on Wrongful Convictions receives approximately 200 credible requests for legal assistance each month, according to Warden, who says that more than a third of the requests are from men and women who confessed but claim that their confessions were false.

Founded 10 years ago, the center has been instrumental in 37 exonerations, more than half of which involved confessions that proved to be false.

Drizin is a leading authority on coerced confessions. His policy work focuses on efforts around the country to require law enforcement agencies to electronically record custodial interrogations. Warden is an award-winning legal affairs journalist, who, as editor and publisher of Chicago Lawyer magazine during the 1980s, exposed more than a score of wrongful convictions in Illinois.

Topics: Research, People, University News