Do not think for a second that the story you are about to hear could not happen in Wisconsin. Here’s a succinct summary of State v. John S. Finley, 2018AP258-CR, District 2, decided June 12, 2019 : “The Majority supports the government’s ‘interview,’ which utilized lies, threats, and fabrication of evidence to wrestle a statement from a thirty-six-year-old man, who has the mind of a twelve year old and the social skills of a first grader.” (¶24 (Reilly, P.J., dissenting) (footnote omitted)).
It was Jan. 3, 1989. Keziah Burton had been murdered. She lay face down on the bed, stabbed twice in the neck. Her nightgown had been pulled up to her waist. A blue telephone cord was wrapped around her right wrist. Her son, Huwe Burton, then 16, who had no criminal history and a close-knit relationship with his parents and extended family, said he found his mother murdered when he came home that evening, after having spent the day at school and then at his girlfriend’s house.
But two days later, after detectives had interrogated him for hours, Mr. Burton confessed to the police that he had stabbed his mother while high on crack during an argument. Police arrested him for murder. Of course, he denied that confession to the police. Police had caught a neighbor with a history of violence driving the dead mother’s stolen car, but they did not consider him a suspect because Burton had confessed.
A jury believed the confession to the police and convicted him of murder. He served nearly 20 years in prison before being paroled in 2009. However, in January 2019, Judge Steven L. Barrett ruled that someone else killed Ms. Burton, and that detectives had used psychologically coercive interrogation techniques to get Mr. Burton to give a false confession. Based on these findings, the recommended that Burton’s conviction be vacated and the charges be dismissed.
This was after a the two-year re-investigation that uncovered newly discovered evidence. This evidence was gathered by the lawyers for the Innocence Project and the Bronx District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) which found new evidence including: (1) scientific and scholarly research confirming that the psychologically coercive techniques used by the detectives produce false confessions; (2) the same detectives who elicited Burton’s false confession also obtained false confessions from two other individuals three months earlier; and (3) the background and prior criminal history of the alternate suspect, Emanuel Green, that strongly supports the defense team’s contention that Green committed the crime alone. During an interrogation, the police led Mr. Burton to believe that if he confessed to killing his mother he would not be charged with statutory rape for having had consensual sex with his girlfriend, who was only 13 year old.
Burton’s conviction was based largely on a confession he made to three detectives—Frank Viggiano, Stanley Schiffman and Sevelie Jones—from the 47th Precinct who used psychologically coercive techniques that were standard practice at the time. The techniques included isolating Burton from his father, threatening him with additional criminal charges and, ultimately, offering leniency if he confessed to killing his mother. Sleep deprived and traumatized by his mother’s death, Burton provided a written and recorded statement that he’d accidentally stabbed his mother during an argument when she would not give him money to pay a debt to a drug dealer.
Frightenly, Justice Barrett said he had presided over another homicide case in 1988 in which the same detectives who had elicited a false confession from Mr. Burton had coerced phony statements from two men, who implicated a third man in the murder. It later came out the third man was in jail at the time of the killing and could not have been involved.
In fact, according to Saul Kassin, a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who is one of the world’s leading experts on interrogation. Kassin explained that false confessions are not rare: More than a quarter of the 365 people exonerated in recent decades by the nonprofit Innocence Project had confessed to their alleged crime. Drawing on more than 30 years of research, Kassin has explained how standard interrogation techniques, known to police as the John Reid techniques, combine psychological pressures and escape hatches that can easily cause an innocent person to confess. Kassin also explains how young people are particularly vulnerable to confessing, especially when stressed, tired, or traumatized, as Burton was. Kassin has said confessions that look real can actually be false, even if they’re corroborated by informants and forensic science.
Kassin makes perhaps the most crucial point: confessions are often the first piece of evidence collected by police. Once the police had a confession, all the other evidence lined up to support it so the case can be quickly “cleared.” Psychological research calls this behavioral confirmation bias. See Rosenthal, Covert communication in classrooms, clinics, courtrooms and cubicles, 57 American Psychologist 839-49 (2002); Nickerson, Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in many guises 2 Review of General Psychology 175-220 (1998). Interestingly, people without a criminal record are more likely to give a confession. Leo, Inside the interrogation Room, 86 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 266 (Winter 1996).
Kassin points out a really sad consequence of this tunnel vision: when confessions have turned out to be false, appeals courts have ruled that the other evidence is strong enough to support the conviction. In Kassin’s words: “The courts completely missed out that the other evidence was corrupted.”
SOURCES: “He Spent 19 Years in Prison for Murder. Now Prosecutors Say His Confession Was Coerced. N.Y. Times” (Jan. 24, 2019); This psychologist explains why people confess to crimes they didn’t commit, Science June 13, 2019