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.
"I have read a number of police interrogation manuals and it's clear they've become sophisticated in playing on psychological weaknesses. That's their business, trying to get a confession," said Peter Brooks, a Yale University professor and author of Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature. "An effectively carried out police interrogation is well-designed to induce a response."
But under certain circumstances, police techniques could wear down many who may initially believe in the power of their innocence, experts say.
During interrogations, police usually create stress and a sense of urgency. Suspects are often isolated in rooms especially designed for questioning, and may be deprived of food or sleep. "The goal is to break the suspect down," said Saul Kassin, a Williams College psychology professor who has studied false confessions for more than 20 years. "You want the suspect to want to get out of there."
With stress levels elevated, police confront the suspect, accusing him or her of the crime. Often, police falsely represent evidence, perhaps by telling the suspect that his fingerprints were found at the scene, when they weren't, or that he failed a lie detector test or his friends gave him up.
Courts have upheld such police deception of suspects.
"Now the suspect is in a total state of despair," Kassin said. "Denial isn't getting [the suspect] out of [the interrogation]."
Looking for a Way Out
After hours of isolation, deprivation and accusations, exhausted suspects are often looking for a way out, Kassin said. Here is where police may step in and suggest that the suspect may not have intended to commit the crime, or hint that the consequences might not be harsh if the suspect confesses.
Police may also mention, intentionally or by mistake, certain key details about the crime or crime scene that only the perpetrator could know, confusing the process further. In the Central Park Jogger case, for example, some of the teenaged suspects were shown crime scene photos before they confessed.
Suspects, even when innocent, often confess just to escape their interrogators, and can often weave a story together that shows even they believe in their own guilt.
"What makes someone give a false confession is not that they need a Diet Coke or a Big Mac after however many hours, it's that they become convinced that the best thing to do at the moment is to confess," she said. "Like it or not, you're going to be arrested. Police have evidence they sincerely believe will convict you, and will go to the gas chamber and spend the rest of your life in jail."
For innocent people who confess, the interrogation room is a Twilight Zone experience. They walk in with a naïve belief in their own innocence, and leave in handcuffs having confessed to a crime.
Close to 80 percent of all suspects turn down their right to have a lawyer present during questioning, and innocent people are even more likely to waive their rights, Kassin said.
Fixing the Old Methods
A recent rash in false confession revelations has prompted talk of reform. Stan Walters, who trains police officers in interrogation techniques, says one way to prevent false confessions is to adequately teach interview strategies. As it is, too many police officers have faulty notions of spotting deception in a suspect, he said.
Some departments rely on old myths, such as judging eye movement, to gauge whether a suspect is lying, Walters said. When the suspect's eyes move to the right after the interrogator asks a question, the myth goes, the suspect has something to hide.
Other behaviors, such as stammering or fidgeting, can be interpreted as signs of deception, but really may be signs of stress, Walters said.
"We're not preparing officers and investigators for the task of interviewing," Walters said. "They're learning through the job but not necessarily getting the right training."
Critics say some overzealous police officers know exactly what they are doing when they frame innocent suspects — they just want the case closed. But police often have good reason to believe a suspect is guilty when they reach the interrogation room, even if evidence later clears them, others say.
"Something tangible puts that person at the scene in some connection," said Joseph Ryan, a 25-year veteran of the New York City Police Department who now teaches criminal justice at Pace University.
Especially when a brutal crime has occurred, police face heavy pressure to get a confession, he said. "There is pressure on the police to make the community feel safe, that the individuals who did the crime are no longer on the street."
Tape the Interrogations
Many critics of police interrogation techniques advocate the videotaping of suspect interviews from beginning to end. Many law enforcement agencies tape confessions, but usually only at the end of the interrogation. Only two states, Alaska and Minnesota, require videotaping of interviews, and some local jurisdictions do so voluntarily.
Some police and prosecutors' groups say videotaping interrogations would be costly, especially for small police forces. Sometimes, taping interviews can be impractical, too, especially when police are doing interviews out in the field, said Chuck Canterbury, vice president of the Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.
"It's like calling for mandated DNA evidence," said Canterbury, a 22-year veteran of the Horry County, S.C., police department. "It sounds wonderful, but there's not DNA evidence in every case."
Until juries can watch interrogations from beginning to end, though, they may never understand how an innocent person can admit to a crime they did not commit, videotaping advocates say.
"Asking a jury to judge the credibility of a confession without seeing the interrogation is like a medical examiner conducting an autopsy without a body," Kassin said.
Taping interrogations can also protect police from false accusations of abuse and coercion, Ryan said. "Courts have already ruled police can lie, as long as I am not using any force on the suspect it's OK," he said.
Although he opposes mandated interrogation taping, Canterbury said most police work would stand up in the eyes of a jury, even when deception is used to get a confession.
"Deception by law enforcement is a recognized technique and has been upheld by the Supreme Court," he said. "I think the American public is smart enough to understand that."