Why Innocent People Confess to Murder

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.

"I believe that the circumstances surrounding the interview of Gary Gauger were completely appropriate," says Jim Sotos, a defense attorney for the police, who is still trying to raise doubts about Gauger's innocence, even though another man is in jail for the crime.

Psychological Warfare

Allen Chestnet says he also fell victim to "thorough investigation." In May 1998, the developmentally disabled man, then 16, cut his hand at his home in Maryland. As he was sitting on his front porch, local reporters covering the murder of Chestnet's neighbor saw him. After noticing blood on his hand, they called state police.

Chestnet, who had no violent history, was picked up and interrogated for hours.

During the interrogation, he says, police seemed to have no doubts about his guilt.

"He was like, 'I know you did it, so why are you lying to me?,'" says Chestnet. "They had me so upset, I wasn't thinking right."

For hours, he says, his interrogators told him he was a killer and said his denials were lies that were only getting him in deeper. He says he was desperate to appease the cops, who offered him an easy way out: by confessing.

Even after authorities determined that his DNA did not match traces found at the crime scene, Chestnet was kept in jail until November 1998, where he says he was stabbed and raped twice by other inmates. Authorities contend they still had reason to suspect his involvement in the murder.

To this day, Chestnet says he's afraid of the police. He is suing authorities over his arrest and incarceration.

In both the Chestnet and Gauger cases, police initially refused to admit they had coerced a confession from an innocent man, despite evidence clearing the suspect. According to Fallin, this kind of attitude is pervasive among interrogators.

"Some of the detectives are hot shots. Some of them know they're good, know they can get a confession," he says. "Nobody tells them what to do or how to do it."

'They Wore Me Down'

In Raymond Wood's case, detectives in Maine had nothing more than suspicion that he had hit his girlfriend with a car and killed her. But police turned up the heat to entice him to confess.

Wood had argued with his girlfriend, Bessie Selek, when he says he got fed up and drove to a store. Bessie, according to witnesses, left home soon after with a blood alcohol level of .28, walking in the opposite direction on a dark, remote road. She was hit by a car and killed.

"You have no idea how much evidence I have, Raymond, do you hear me?," one of the cops said during the interrogation, which was videotaped.

In fact, witnesses reported seeing a van with a broken headlight speeding from the scene. Wood's van had two working headlights. Also, a shattered bug shield at the scene didn't match the van Wood was driving.

Wood repeatedly denied any involvement in his girlfriend's death, but the police pressure was too much for him. After about six hours in police custody, he gave in.

"They literally, they wore me down. I was going through emotional torture by these people," he says. "They convinced me that I had to have done it."

After seeing the videotape, a judge threw out his confession and police dropped all charges 3 but not before Wood spent a year in jail. Police declined to be interviewed, citing an ongoing investigation into Selek's death. But in a statement, they stood by their detectives.

Wood is free, but says it won't really be over until there's an apology from police.

"It would take them down off their God-like pedestal, that [they] can make no mistakes," says Wood, who would prefer an apology to financial compensation. "It would make them human again."