Edward Lai Harner, Edward Harner
Andrea Harner
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October 12, 2007

False Confessions by Saul Kassin, John Jay School of Criminal Justice '07


This was a fantastic talk. I mean, why on earth would an innocent person confess to a crime he/she didn't commit??!! For as long as I can remember I've been reading about this stuff so I knew about The Innocence Project (only reason I ever wanted to go to law school was to work for them!) and the frightening number of people they've successfully exonerated thanks to DNA (keep in mind that if and only if the crime you were falsely convicted of still has intact, testable DNA, often after decades, could you even harbor the remote possibility of being exonerated). What I didn't know continues to shock me to this day. Did you know that interrogators are legally allowed to present false information to a suspect in order to secure a confession????????!!!!!!!!! Here's an example from the well-publicized case of Marty Tankleff. Marty was 17, 17 years ago and awoke in his house to discover his mother and father lying in pools of blood. Right away he was nabbed the prime suspect even though there was another person who was glaringly obvious as the real prime suspect but we won't visit that aspect here. His mother was pronounced dead on the scene and his father who was barely still alive was rushed to the hospital. Marty was interrogated using the standard physical and psychological deprivation techniques I'm sure you all know just from watching Law & Order but basically you're deprived of any physical and psychological comforts like extra clothing, jewelry or belongings, you are stripped to your basic necessities, have no visible phone as a reminder of contact to the outside world and you are only given minimal water, food and bathroom privileges. On top of this, imagine Marty having just learned that his mom is dead and his dad is near death. After hours of unsuccessfully trying to get Marty to confess, one of the detectives, likely the bad cop in the routine (Mutt & Jeff routine is what we call it in grad school), left the room supposedly to take a call and upon returning tells Marty that his father has emerged from his coma and has named Marty as the murderer. Marty fell apart and thought if his own Dad said he did it, he must have done it and not remembered it. The "good cop" then wrote up a confession for Marty to sign but when it came time to sign it, he came to and refused. Nevertheless the harm had been done and Marty is on record as partially confessing. To this day, the "good cop" who was present when the "bad cop" came in with news from the hospital, says that what he heard about Marty's dad seemed so real he even believed it at the time and only found out later it was a lie. Marty's dad never awoke from his coma and died two weeks later. Still, the partial confession, garnered out of a straight up, bold-faced LIE, still stands and the Innocence Project is fighting to free Marty who has already done 17 years for a crime he didn't commit. There are numerous examples like this one that highlight the deeply disturbing fact that it is entirely legal to lie in order to gain a confession from a suspect. And of course while lies are being used to gain false confessions, real murderers remain free.


Andrea, nice blog. I posted a link in our forum:


It's great that you are spreading the word about false confessions. It's hard for some people to grasp, because it's counter-intuitive that anyone would confess to murder if they were innocent. For more about how it happens, and all the elements that went into it for Marty, you might be interested in this piece on our blog:


Posted by: Doctor News at October 12, 2007 6:31 PM
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