Indianapolis Star

Confessions rarely questioned by courts
Doubt about the truth of admissions could be erased if interrogations were taped, some say.
By Shannon Tan
December 22, 2002


False confessions have upended high-profile cases in Indianapolis and New York recently, but central Indiana judges and jurors rarely eye confessions with suspicion.

It was an unusual move this month when a Marion County judge threw out the confession of Charles Daugherty. His admission never matched the facts of the case, and the mentally retarded man walked free. He had told police he raped and killed 11-year-old LaShonna Bates in 1994.

And last week, the New York Supreme Court threw out the convictions of the five men who confessed and were found guilty of raping a Central Park jogger in 1989 after DNA evidence fingered a serial rapist.

Yet suppression in court of formal confessions given to police is rare, said Richard Ofshe, a University of California, Berkeley professor and a national expert in police interrogations and false confessions.

Those few suppressions likely could be avoided, many say, by requiring all interrogations to be recorded in full. Indiana, like most states, does not require police officers to tape record or videotape formal interrogations.

No one tracks how often false admissions occur. According to the Marion County public defender's office, in at least four murder and drug trafficking cases in the past two years, confessions were thrown out by a judge, a defendant who confessed was acquitted or the charges were dropped despite a confession.

In the past few years, Indiana appellate courts have affirmed confessions by defendants who were told lies by police before confessing. The courts tolerated the use of deception in cases where police told suspects they had ballistic information, fingerprints, DNA evidence and eyewitness identifications when there were none.

Sticking points arise, however, if courts determine the confession was involuntary or given by someone unaware of their rights.

Experts say the mentally retarded and children are especially susceptible to making false admissions of guilt. They are more easily manipulated by skilled interrogators and may not fully understand the implications of a confession.

Police agencies send detectives to interrogation seminars in part to avoid such situations but also to learn psychological forms of interrogation that have proven to be extremely effective.
"Interrogations are designed to result in a confession," said Steve Schutte, a state public defender. "People are falsely incriminating themselves because the techniques work."

But trying to guard against that by taping all confessions, critics worry, would make extracting confessions tougher.
"The majority of criminal (suspects) are uncomfortable with having a tape recorder going," said Johnson County Prosecutor Lance Hamner, a former police officer. "If you say before I talk, 'I want to turn on the tape recorder,' they won't say a word."

Because the sessions take place behind closed doors, courtroom battles over the validity of unrecorded confessions often come down to believing the police or the suspect.

Indianapolis police sometimes videotape or record confessions but not always the entire interrogation.
"(Taping) would eliminate a lot of miscarriages of justice, a lot of frivolous claims of police misconduct," said Ofshe. "False confessions are a major contributor to miscarriages of justice and . . . probably the most easily fixed problem in the criminal justice system."

Such precautions might have headed off the dismissal of murder charges against Daugherty.

After being questioned by the police for 13 hours, Daugherty gave two taped statements. The suppression of those statements may taint the case forever, leaving attorneys for any other suspect in the killing able to use Daugherty's confession to raise doubts with a jury.

Only two states require the taping of interrogations.

In Alaska, interviews of suspects in custody are both audiotaped and videotaped, while in Minnesota the statements are audiotaped.

Staff writer William Booher contributed to this report.

Call Shannon Tan at 1-317-444-6491.


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
How the System Works
Truth in Justice