In a substantial number of cases involving wrongful criminal convictions, innocent defendants voluntarily plead guilty, or otherwise confess to the crime with which they are charged. While it seems counterintuitive to the normal person to admit guilt to crime that he or she didn’t commit, innocent defendants sometimes erroneously admit guilt for a number of reasons, including fear or intimidation, coercion or duress, impairment, or simple ignorance.
When a person falsely confesses to a crime, it is more likely that that person will be convicted of the crime, even if he or she later recants the false confession. Therefore, false confessions certainly can lead to wrongful convictions. If the underlying basis for the false confession is fear, coercion, impairment, or ignorance, however, then there may be grounds to overturn a wrongful conviction on appeal.
Appealing a Wrongful Conviction Based on a False Confession
Any of the reasons behind a false confession which are described in greater detail below may be sufficient evidence to exonerate you, even where you have falsely confessed. Particularly where your false confession was the result of inappropriate or unlawful police coercion, or if you were impaired at the time of your false confession, there is a chance that your conviction may be overturned by a higher court.
Typically, the first stage of appealing a criminal conviction is to file a formal appeal with the court of appeals in the state of your conviction. While you do have the option of asking the trial judge to reconsider your criminal conviction prior to filing a formal appeal, it is not a necessary prerequisite to filing an appeal. If, after filing your appeal, the appellate court still upholds your criminal conviction, you then can further appeal your case to a higher state court, or the state supreme court.
Fear or Intimidation Leading to a False Confession
When a person is accused by law enforcement officials of committing a criminal act, and, particularly, a violent or serious criminal act, one can not underestimate the normal human reaction to such an accusation. For instance, a person who has not had much interaction with law enforcement may be scared or intimidated by their questions and behavior. Similarly, a person who has had multiple run-ins and other negative experiences with law enforcement may react in a distrustful and even fearful manner. At other times, a person accused of such a crime may have been threatened by the actual perpetrator(s) of the crime, and therefore believes that telling the truth will only result in harm or violence to him and/or his family. As a result of these quite normal human emotions, people sometimes confess, and thus are convicted of, crimes that they simply did not commit.
False Confessions Coerced by Police
Next, a person accused of a crime may experience coercion or duress, particularly in the context of interrogation by law enforcement officials. When police believe that a person has committed a crime, they will use their best efforts in questioning that person to get him or her to tell the truth that has been committed – that is their job. Sometimes, however, interrogation techniques used by police, including detaining a suspect for a lengthy period of time, repeatedly asking the suspect the same questions, and even depriving the suspect of food, drink, and/or sleep, can result in false confessions. Law enforcement officials may exaggerate the evidence against the suspect, or even tell lies, in order to coerce a suspect into confessing to the crime.
Impairments Resulting in False Confessions
Another class of people who are particularly prone to making false confessions includes juveniles, mentally impaired people, and people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. All of these types of people are more vulnerable to suggestions by law enforcement in terms of confessing to crimes that they did not commit. For instance, children and people with mental impairments tend to regard police officers as people with authority, and therefore may give answers that they think will please or agree with their interrogators, even if they are not truthful. Likewise, confessions from these types of people tend to be unreliable due to the inherent risk of manipulation by police and even other adults in general. For instance, children may believe that they can see their parents or go home, if only they tell the police what they want to hear.
Ignorance and False Confessions
Finally, some people who are wrongfully accused of crimes are simply ignorant of the law and their rights. A person may believe the police officer that tells her that invoking her right to a lawyer during questioning will only result in a harsher penalty later on. A person may think that if he confesses to the crime, then he will receive a lighter sentence. A person may believe that he will be allowed to leave if he just admits to some involvement in the crime. Although police are required to advise suspects of their rights at certain points, this doesn’t always happen as it should, nor do suspects always understand their legal rights, even if they receive them. As a result, some people falsely confess to crimes out of sheer ignorance.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.