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Puzzle and paradox: Why do some innocent people falsely confess?

It could likely be the ultimate conundrum in criminal law, with it perhaps never being fully understood why any human being with even a shred of rationality would ever confess to the commission of a serious crime, knowing that a harsh term of incarceration potentially awaits as a result.

And yet it happens, both in St. Louis and across the country. Indeed, and as noted in a recent national media report citing evidence culled in a national database with relevant data on wrongful convictions, such convictions were linked with false confessions in approximately 12% of all instances.

One ex-detective knows a great deal about that. Former investigator James Trainum worked on homicides for one major police department for many years. A virtual epiphany involving one of his cases -- in which he subsequently proved that a woman who confessed to murder following a prolonged interrogation was actually innocent -- led to his authoring a book on false confessions that is lauded by some criminal law commentators.

Trainum points to a type of boilerplate process pursuant to which investigators sometimes extract false guilty pleas. Commonplace factors include an isolated interrogation room; many consecutive hours featuring aggressive and even accusatory questioning; liberal deviations from the truth regarding evidence and related matters; and psychological posturing that seeks to convince suspects that detectives can empathize with them and understand their motivations.

It is not wholly incomprehensible why some individuals crack under such pressure. Trainum says that they sometimes engage in "a bad cost-benefit analysis" that underestimates the downsides. And, of course, some individuals being questioned have mental issues that can prompt false utterances.

Trainum says that things can be materially improved by simply ensuring that every interrogation conducted in the United States is videotaped. He would additionally like to see police questioners who are uniformly far better trained than what is commonly the case presently.

And, of course, the likelihood of a false confession is exponentially diminished when a criminal suspect secures the timely counsel of a proven criminal defense attorney to safeguard his or her legal rights and to ensure that investigators act with due proprietary and within legal parameters.

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Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry

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