- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2000

On July 9, a 25-year-old woman named Tiffany Goldberg was attacked on a Manhattan street by a man who hit her with a chunk of concrete, fracturing her skull. Eleven days later, police and prosecutors arrested Bentley Louis Grant, a homeless man known to frequent the area, and the case looked open and shut.

Four eyewitnesses identified Mr. Grant, a homeless man known in the area. One said she saw him carrying a piece of concrete before the crime. Best of all, Mr. Grant had confessed to attacking Miss Goldberg. There was just one catch: He didn't do it.

After confessing, Mr. Grant changed his story, insisting that at the time of the assault he was at a Virgin Megastore. Employees there recalled seeing him that day, and before long, a security video was found proving his claim, and law enforcement authorities admitted they had made a mistake. Despite what he told police, Mr. Grant was an innocent man.

You might think that an innocent person would never admit to a crime he didn't commit. But it happens all the time. Last year, a 15-year-old questioned by Chicago police about a woman's murder gave a statement detailing how he had stabbed her to death. Prosecutors pursued the case despite one terribly inconvenient fact: an autopsy of the body had found no stab wounds. The boy was acquitted.

Not only can police sometimes get a suspect to confess to a crime he didn't commit, they can sometimes get a suspect to confess to a crime that hasn't even happened. Ten years ago in Austin, Texas, a man brought in for questioning failed two polygraph exams before finally informing police he had murdered his former girlfriend. That came as a surprise to the woman, who was quite alive in Tucson.

Some of these cases gain considerable notoriety, such as when two Chicago boys, age 7 and 8, admitted killing an 11-year-old girl only to be released after semen was found on her underwear. But most of the false confessions that turn up go largely unnoticed, and many doubtless are never even discovered. There is no telling how many people are in prison because they were induced to implicate themselves in crimes they didn't commit.

Confessions make powerful evidence of guilt. That's why police go to great lengths to persuade suspects to admit what they've done. And once they have a confession, the case is normally closed. Other suspects are no longer pursued, and contrary evidence is ignored or even suppressed. Suspects who have signed statements proclaiming their supposed involvement in a crime can rarely convince police or jurors they were lying.

That's not hard to understand: Why would anyone admit to an offense that could get him years in prison, if not the death penalty? It turns out there are lots of reasons. Some suspects are mentally ill or retarded and ill-equipped to stand up to lengthy interrogation. Some are told the evidence already has implicated them, and that they'll get off easy if they come clean.

Often, though, they merely succumb to coercive methods. "A lot of people confess to terminate an intolerable situation," says Richard Leo, a criminologist at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in false confession issues.

Bentley Louis Grant's lawyer said he was interrogated for 20 straight hours before finally giving police what they demanded. Gary Gauger, who spent years on Illinois' death row before being exonerated for a 1993 murder, implicated himself after being grilled for 21 hours. Last year, the Cook County state's attorney had to drop charges against a murder suspect who said he confessed because he was beaten by police.

Sometimes things don't turn out so well. Stanley Howard was convicted and sentenced to die for a 1984 murder based largely on his signed confession. He said he gave it only because he was tortured and an investigation by the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards concluded that detectives had indeed physically abused him. Despite serious doubts about his guilt, though, Howard is still on death row.

What can be done to prevent the innocent from professing guilt? Police could be better trained and supervised to prevent not only torture but assorted methods whose only real value is to induce suspects to surrender. Best of all, interrogations could be videotaped from the very beginning to discourage cops from using inhumane techniques. "There would be less coercion and fewer false confessions," says Mr. Leo.

Some police apparently think the most valuable thing they can do is get a confession. It would be better for both crime victims and crime suspects if the cops realized the real priority is getting the truth.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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