Wrongful Convictions

By: Cecilia Nieto

Imagine police have named you a suspect in a murder investigation. You know that you absolutely did not commit this crime. There is no doubt in your mind. It may seem inconceivable that an innocent person would confess to a crime, let alone such a horrendous crime, that they did not commit. However, around 29% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved false confessions. Moreover, 31% of the defendants  were 18 years old or younger, and 9% of the defendants had known mental health or capacity issues. This is a devastating yet curable phenomenon in our criminal justice system.

False confessions can be elicited using multiple tactics. Law enforcement have used real and perceived intimidation and threats of force. They have induced hunger, exhaustion, or sleep deprivation. They have manipulated those with mental health or educational limitations, and those who are unaware of their rights. And they have used lies and devious or confusing interrogation techniques.

Fortunately, public knowledge of the prevalence of false confessions has improved as our fascination with true crime has amplified. Over the last decade or so, the true crime genre has exploded, becoming one of the most popular guilty pleasures. True crime books, websites, documentaries, and podcasts are being produced rapidly, and sometimes in real-time as cases unfold. Many of these projects focus on instances of wrongful conviction and exoneration. The value in these works is that they are often created by experts in the field with extensive hands on experience. Bringing public awareness to the stories of wrongfully convicted individuals can help incite movements for change in the criminal justice system, and even the reopening of cases.

The hosts of the podcast Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions, Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider, are both attorneys, professors, and co-directors of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Moreover, the executive producer, Jason Flom, is a founding board member of the Innocence Project and also hosts his own podcast Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom. In 2018, Kim Kardashian West appeared on the podcast to discuss her work seeking a pardon for Chris Young, a man who received life in prison for drug charges.

Drizin and Nirider are originally known for their representation of Brenden Dassey, who was convicted for his involvement in the murder of Teresa Halbach, and remains in prison today despite forensic evidence that has disproven his confession. Dassey was just 16 years old and a special education student when he gave his confession after detectives subjected him to a “guessing game-style interrogation” similarly used in other false confession cases. This case was depicted in the sensational Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer. Drizin also consulted on the Netflix documentary series The Confession Tapes, which reveals the cases of six different defendants who gave false confessions after enduring improper police interrogation and manipulation.

Sonya Pfeiffer, a formally award-winning television journalist, is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer. Her husband, David Rudolf, is a renowned criminal and civil rights lawyer who has successfully represented wrongfully convicted defendants against law enforcement agencies. Together Pfeiffer and Rudolf host the new podcast, Abuse of Power, which features cases of misconduct in law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system, including the elicitation of false confessions.

These are just a handful of the many new documentaries and podcasts that are shedding light on false confessions, wrongful convictions, and prosecutorial misconduct. These types of programs are not only sources of entertainment for true crime addicts, but platforms for lawyers and experts to advocate for victims of the criminal justice system. They provide education to the public on aspects of criminal procedure that the lay person might never otherwise learn, delivered in a medium that captivates their interest. Most importantly, these sources can help “the general public, police officers and prosecutors to understand that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, especially in a murder or a rape, a crime that could lead someone to death row or life in prison.”