How False Confessions Happen


I’ve written before about the fact that 25 percent of the cases in which the Innocence Project has proven someone convicted of murder or rape have involved false confessions. That baffles people, who can’t imagine how or why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, especially when the result is spending their lives in prison or being put to death. But NPR has a long piece on one such case that illustrates perfectly how it happens.

Nga Truong was a 16-year old girl with a 13-month old son, living with her family when her baby stopped breathing in late 2008. They called 911 but the baby was declared dead a short time later at the hospital. And the police immediately decided that she was responsible for it and locked her in a tiny interrogation room to get a confession out of her.

Back in the interrogation room, Sgt. Kevin Pageau presses in on the sobbing teenager.

“Somebody hurt that baby, and we need to know who it was, and we’re going to find out who it was,” Pageau says.

“I’m telling you everything,” Truong replies.

“No you’re not. Stop. Don’t lie to me,” Pageau says.

In that room, Truong will admit to suffocating her son. She’ll be arrested and she’ll spend almost three years awaiting trial for murder. But a videotape that police made of that interrogation, which NPR member station WBUR fought in court to obtain, will eventually set her free.

That videotape provides a rare look into the interrogation room, and the potential power it gives detectives to coerce false confessions.

A judge has thrown out the confession, ruling that it was the result of threats, intimidation and lies told by the police.

Homicide detectives are often required to confront the people they question. But in the case of a teenage girl whose baby has been dead for 27 hours and who pleads and cries through much of the interview, Truong’s attorney, Ed Ryan, says this is psychological torture.

“Their interrogation was designed not to determine the truth, not to get at the facts,” says Ryan, who wasn’t present for the interrogation, when Truong didn’t yet have a lawyer. “Their intention was designed to force her to confess to doing it in the way they figure she did it. They are the ones that force-fed her the word ‘suffocation.’ ”

Pageau also fed her the word “smother,” saying the medical examiner had determined Khyle had been smothered to death. But, in fact, the medical examiner said no such thing. Pageau was lying to Truong.

According to conventional training manuals, the purpose of interrogation is to get the suspect to incriminate themselves or, better yet, make a full confession. Confessions are considered the queen of criminal evidence, so in that room, Pageau does what he can to get the evidence he’s looking for.

The detective knows, as he will later acknowledge in court, that the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy a few hours earlier has not yet discovered a cause of death. But in the box, he betrays no doubt.

“I know how he died, which is why we are here,” Pageau tells Truong…

“Maximization” is a technique detectives use to convey to the suspect the hopelessness of their situation. It’s meant to give the impression that continued denials will fail and that confession is an easier way out. And that’s just what Pageau does when he tells Truong, “If you think this is going to be like that other baby you were watching so well, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Eventually, the detectives switch from “maximization” to “minimization.” Pageau’s partner, John Doherty, offers Truong sympathy and plays down her responsibility for what they accuse her of doing. After all, Doherty tells her, “you’re just a kid.”

“People will be much more understanding if you come forward and say, ‘I’m a 16-year-old girl. I lost it, this is what happened,’ ” Doherty says.

The detectives exploit the antagonism between Truong and her mother, who is only 14 years older than Truong. They say the house is a mess and that Truong’s mother is unfit. While offering Truong an excuse, they dangle a motive for why she did what they accuse her of doing.

“It’s not fair to you,” Pageau says. “You’re a kid. You should be able to be a kid, right?”

He continues, “We know you’re pissed because you have to keep taking care of your mother’s kids, and you didn’t have a chance to be a kid. That’s why you smothered Khyle, didn’t you?”

“I did not,” Truong replies.

“That’s why you smothered him, didn’t you?”

“I would never kill him.”

That’s when the detectives turn to another method of extracting a confession: making promises and offering inducements. They say they can get Truong help if she confesses.

“All everyone’s waiting for today is for you to admit to what you did so that we can start the process of getting you some help,” Pageau says, “getting your brothers out of that house and getting them in a better home, where there’s a mom that gets up in the morning and takes care of them.”

A few minutes later, Truong asks, “What kind of help am I going to get?” That’s when the detectives know they’re getting close. Pageau tells her there are women on the other side of the door who help children “like you.” But there are no women on the other side of the door.

He tells her that if she confesses, she will get help and leniency in the juvenile court, saying, “Keep it in the juvenile court. Keep it in the juvenile system, where punishment is minimal, if any — let’s say there is any.”

This is why every interrogation should be recorded and made available to defense attorneys. It’s also why any confession that occurs after the police lie to a suspect should be thrown out.

Comments

  1. says

    Has anyone complied a list of mental defenses against these techniques?

    Or is it just best to do the POW thing and only repeat name and rank and demand a lawyer?

  2. Who Knows? says

    First thing out of your mouth when being questioned by the police is, “I want to speak to a lawyer.” Say nothing more because no matter what you say, no matter how innocent it sounds to you, they will use it against you.

  3. Brownian says

    Been there, done that*, was acquitted because the cops spent all their time trying to goad a confession out of me rather than doing investigative work.

    First thing out of your mouth when being questioned by the police is, “I want to speak to a lawyer.” Say nothing more because no matter what you say, no matter how innocent it sounds to you, they will use it against you.

    Well said, but people really need to hear Professor James Duane say it.

    *I didn’t confess, but fortunately I was a minor whose parents wouldn’t let him into the interrogation room alone.

  4. says

    At the risk of being redundant: Never, ever, ever submit to questioning without a lawyer present. If they try to deny you one, they’re violating one of your most basic civil liberties and are at risk of getting the shit kicked out of them by a judge.

  5. exdrone says

    I strongly recommend the book:

    Loftus, Dr. Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketcham. The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994.

    to see how ridiculously easy it is to be susceptible to the implantation of false memories and to read case studies of families who have been ripped apart by false accusations turned into confessions through the intervention of motivated but uncritical therapists and police officers.

  6. marcus says

    @4 “At the risk of being redundant: Never, ever, ever submit to questioning without a lawyer present. If they try to deny you
    one, they’re violating one of your most basic civil liberties and are at risk of getting the shit kicked out of them by a judge.”

    I believe that in this case redundancy is warranted, in fact I don’t think it can be over-emphasized. If the police are detaining you ask them why you are being detained, if they say you are not being detained, leave. If you are being detained ask why and insist that they either arrest you or release you. If you are under arrest, after you identify yourself, repeat this phrase (and say nothing else) until you have a lawyer, “I do not waive my rights, I want to speak to an attorney.” In this country, according to the Supreme Court, if you do not assert your rights you do not have them.

  7. says

    Because it bears repeating: THE COPS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. (Neither are social workers.)

    I, personally, wouldn’t trust a cop as far as I could throw a police car.

  8. Pinky says

    In addition to the video of Professor James Duane I recommend other short videos on how to interact with the police – search for “flexyourrights” on Youtube.

    The videos do not teach illegal acts, they instruct on the methods law enforcement use to trick a person into acting against zir own self interest.

    The videos can be purchased from Flex Your Rights to show to gatherings.

    Preparing for a police encounter necessitates removing the: “The police are our friend,” attitude from our programming.

    The police are taught to ‘control every situation’. Cops know the truth; zie arrested you so you must be guilty, otherwise zie has made a mistake. Police officers don’t make mistakes.

    In the cacophony of zir life; feeding the family, getting the kids through college, vying for promotion, etc., the police officer may be a little more interested in getting credit for a “good collar” then in searching for the truth.

    Getting the suspect to confirm zir own guilt through interrogation, even if it degenerates into lies and abuse, is easier than losing face releasing the wrongly arrested, spending several more hours in investigative work and redoing all the paperwork.

    It’s been said above, but it bears repeating ad nauseam: Don’t say anything to law enforcement! If the prosecutor cannot win on the main charge, zie will twist what you may have said as a casual aside and you’ll go to jail for lying to the police.

    The person most responsible for your welfare is yourself!

  9. sosw says

    Brownian:

    Well said, but people really need to hear Professor James Duane say it.

    That was the first thing that came to my mind. Funny thing is, he’s a professor at Regent University…so something good can occasionally come out of an institution established by someone vile.

    Fortunately, like prison rape (which is a symptom of generally poor prison conditions where prisoners are able to abuse each other), that doesn’t seem to be so much universally true as a problem in the US specifically.

    Fortunate for me living in a country where things aren’t quite that bad (routinely scoring at the top end in CPI reflects this, among other things), fortunate for Americans in that it’s possible to fix, at least in principle.

  10. says

    And yet so many will still think that what we really need is to get “tough on crime. ” Our attitude towards criminal jusice, at least in the U.S., is so plainly irrational it boggles. No one gains anything from imprisoning or convicting more people, we shouldn’t want that. We shouldn’t be enabling our primitive desire for revenge, that’s beneath us. It’s so much more sensible to support a justice system with reasonable prison times for convicts, and significantly less power for prosectors and police. Police shouldn’t have the ability to do what they did to that girl. You don’t have to be altruistic or even all that compassionate to support this side of the argument. You should just fear being the one in that interrogation room, forced into confessing guilt despite your innocence.

  11. laurentweppe says

    Has anyone complied a list of mental defenses against these techniques?

    Adopting a conspiracy-theorist mindset and assume that the cops interrogating are the real killers trying to rig your trial maybe: you’ll never believe any lie they tell you at the very small prince of your sanity /sarcasm

  12. says

    Has anyone complied a list of mental defenses against these techniques?

    Or is it just best to do the POW thing and only repeat name and rank and demand a lawyer?

    The sad thing is there’s really nothing you can do to help your chances. The main things are the environment (deep in a police station), the uncertainty (the police do it all the time, you don’t), the high stakes and, most importantly, the sheer amount of time they can keep it up.

    It’s very easy to say that you should say “no comment” and then sit and stare at a wall until your lawyer turns up but it’s harder in practice when you need to get home to feed your kids. A decent majority (practically all?) of false confessions are made with the hope of having the questioning stop and that applies just as much for cops stopping you going home as it does for secret police torturing you.

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