Why would someone falsely confess to a serious crime? If you have never been arrested or interrogated, claims of wrongful confessions may seem far-fetched. When you know what some criminal suspects have gone through and the lengths police will go to secure false confessions, you might see it another way.
“You’re black and I have a badge”
Andrew Stewart, Ransom Watkins and Alfred Chestnut were teenagers when police officers framed them for the murder of a 14-year-old boy in Baltimore. Investigators secured false confessions after separating the teens from each other and not allowing their parents to join them. The intimidation was shockingly overt, with one detective telling a suspect, “You have two things against you — you’re Black and I have a badge.”
Separation, intimidation and coercion can make a criminal suspect feel powerless. When the target of such tactics is a frightened teenager, that person might confess to almost anything in the hope of getting away from the fear and back to a sense of security.
The confessions were only part of the scheme leading to this wrongful conviction. Officers neglected volumes of evidence pointing to a different suspect and a prosecutor lied about the existence of such evidence. After 36 years of false imprisonment, the illegal tactics finally came to light and the three were exonerated.
His father would never lie
Another teenager, Marty Tankleff, awoke one morning to find his parents having suffered a vicious attack, his mother already dead from stab wounds, his father in a coma. Police identified Tankleff as their prime suspect from the very beginning, but could not get him to confess.
After hours of intense interrogation, a frustrated officer finally informed the teen that Tankleff’s own father had identified him as the killer from his hospital bed. The younger Tankleff, knowing his father would never lie, began to speculate about the possibility that he had blacked out and did indeed attack his own parents in his sleep.
Police leveraged this quasi-confession, which Tankleff never signed, to secure a conviction. The only problem was, Tankleff’s father never did regain consciousness after being attacked and the statement about Tankleff being the murderer was a fabrication. A growing body of exonerating evidence ultimately led to Tankleff’s release, but not until he had served 17 years in prison.
Moving forward from these tragedies
The tragedy of these cases is that the victims will never get back the time they lost in prison. If only someone had stood up for and counseled them in the moment of truth, they may never have made those false confessions. The difference we can make today is by helping victims of false imprisonment fight for justice and compensation from the government bodies that have betrayed them, and by protecting the accused from new instances of such injustice.