One of the big problems in the US (in)justice system is that often the zeal of police and prosecutors to get convictions overrides any desire to catch the actual guilty party. One of the many ways that innocent people end up in prison is when they ‘confess’ to crimes that they did not commit. Confessions have a powerful effect on juries because they, like many of us, cannot imagine why anyone would possibly admit to something they did not do, especially when it is a serious offense.
But false confessions are unfortunately not uncommon and the 1989 case of the Central Park Five where five Black and Latino youths aged 16 and under were convicted of the brutal rape of a young white woman who had been jogging in the park is one of the most egregious examples. Donald Trump paid for a full page ad in the New York Times calling for them to be executed. He still refuses to apologize, repeating the fact that they had confessed as his justification for continuing to think that at least some of them are guilty.
Back in 2005, I wrote about one factor that drives false confessions and that is the plea deal where an innocent person is offered a lesser charge if they confess to it under the threat that if they go to trial, they will be charged with a much more serious offense. Police are actually allowed to lie to the person about the strength of the evidence against them in order to make them think it would be hopeless to fight the serious charge.
But there are other interrogation tactics that law enforcement use that are specifically designed to get confessions at all costs, such as breaking down people by extended periods of questioning under which people are exhausted and can say something just to make it stop. Police are also allowed to cherry pick and present just those parts of an interrogation that makes it look like a confession and omit those parts that contradict it.
On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver describes all the manipulative techniques that police in the US use to get false confessions that have ended up sending innocent people to prison for years.