One night in April 1993, someone slit the throats of Gary Gauger's elderly parents on their farm near Richmond, Ill. It was bad enough for Gauger to learn of his parents' violent death, but it turned out that his nightmare was just beginning.
Gauger told police that he was asleep on the property when his parents, Morris, 74, and Ruth, 70, were killed. But the police didn't buy it, and brought him in for interrogation. After 21 hours of questioning, Gauger broke down and confessed to a crime he did not commit.
Though police had no physical evidence against him, the confession was enough to persuade a jury to convict him of double murder. He was sentenced to death.
Two years later, in an unrelated federal investigation, surveillance tapes captured a member of a motorcycle gang bragging about how he and another gang member had killed the Gaugers. The gang members were later convicted of the murders and other crimes, and Gauger was freed in 1996, after spending three years behind bars.
Every year, thousands of criminals are convicted on the basis of confessions obtained from police interrogations. Experts say law enforcement interrogation techniques are so effective that they can break down the most hardened criminal — and even people who are innocent of the crime they are being accused of. Experts believe there have been hundreds of cases where innocent men succumbed to interrogation and confessed to crimes they did not commit.
"You take someone who is vulnerable, like a grieving family member or someone who isn't used to being confronted by police," says Rich Fallin, a former Maryland police officer who specialized in interrogations, "If interrogated long enough, they'll probably confess."
Assuming Police Tell the Truth
During his interrogation, Gauger says, he kept denying any involvement with the murders. But he says police told him they had evidence. He mistakenly assumed police would not lie to him, an assumption often made by innocent people undergoing interrogation, according to experts.
"They told me that they had found bloody clothes in my bedroom; they found a bloody knife in my pocket," says Gauger, who never asked for an attorney, because he felt he had nothing to hide.
At about 1 a.m., he says, the interrogation turned ugly. Police showed him gruesome crime scene photos of his dead parents, sending him into an emotional freefall. The combination of losing his parents and being told by police repeatedly that he was a liar and killer was just too much.
"I was emotionally distraught, looking at these people for help," he says. "They wouldn't stop the interrogation. I was exhausted. I gave up."
Though Gauger had no memory of the crime, he ended up believing what police told him. "I thought I must have done it in a blackout," he says.
None of what Gauger described surprises Fallin. "They're kept in an interview room, in a cold interview room, with very little clothing on for hours and hours," he says, adding that people are often not given anything to drink or allowed to use the bathroom while being interrogated.
The detectives who interrogated Gauger refused to be interviewed by ABCNEWS, but their lawyer in Gauger's ongoing lawsuit denied that police lied.