The day Corethian Bell discovered his mother's dead body would have been tragic enough. As it turned out, things only got worse — the grieving son soon became the prime suspect.
Chicago police took Bell in for questioning after he called 911 to report his mother's death. At the police station, Bell says he was held for 50 hours, screamed at, roughed up, and wrongly told he failed a lie detector test. Ultimately, Bell confessed on videotape to killing his mother.
With that damning evidence, the case would have been closed.
Bell served 17 months in Cook County Jail before forensic evidence saved him. Blood and semen collected at the scene, and not tested for months, pointed to the guilt of another man.
"Prior to the advent of DNA evidence, Corethian Bell would be languishing in prison, there's no question," said Locke Bowman, Bell's attorney and the legal director of MacArthur Justice Center.
Now, in a pending lawsuit, Bell accuses his interrogating officers of coercing a phony confession out of him. He's not alone.
Bad Confessions in Infamous Cases
Just as DNA evidence has raised questions about traditional crime-fighting tools such as fingerprinting and eyewitness testimony, a slew of recent cases have shed light on the frequency of false confessions.
Of the 110 exonerations due to post-conviction DNA evidence in recent years, 27 included confessions as evidence, according to the non-profit legal clinic Innocence Project. "That number is really shocking," said Richard Ofshe, a leading expert on false confessions and University of California at Berkeley professor. Systemwide, no one knows how often phony confessions occur.
"In my wildest fears I do not imagine the number can be 20 percent. On the other hand, if that's the result to come out of the Innocence Project, that's really scary," Ofshe said.
Indeed, dubious confessions have surfaced in several recent exonerations, reopened cases and police abuse lawsuits.
The infamous Central Park Jogger case, thought long solved, will go to court again in October even though five teens who confessed already served their sentences. Now, a convicted rapist-murderer says he committed the brutal 1989 rape and beating of a New York City woman. In an interview with ABCNEWS' Primetime Thursday, the man, Matias Reyes, says no one else was involved: "I was alone that night."
In Detroit last month, Eddie Joe Lloyd was freed from prison after 17 years for the brutal 1985 rape and murder of a teenage girl. Despite the lack of physical evidence, Lloyd was convicted based heavily on a taped confession he made to Detroit police while he was in a mental hospital.
A man who spent more than 15 years in prison before DNA tests exonerated him filed a civil rights complaint earlier this month in Norristown, Pa., against the prosecutors and two former detectives who took his confession.
Why Admit Something You Didn't Do?
Falsely admitting to a crime may seem unfathomable to those who have never stepped inside a police interrogation room. Experts say the young, old, mentally or emotionally disabled, and people with substance abuse problems are particularly vulnerable to coercion.
In Corethian Bell's case, he suffers from mild retardation and has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Grieving his mother's death made him even more susceptible to police tactics, his lawyers say.