It is astounding and sometimes hard for people to imagine or understand why someone would confess to a crime in which he or she did not commit.
Unfortunately the number of false confessions that are given each year in the United States is astounding. Attorney Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project in New York has estimated that a quarter of the DNA exonerations involve cases in which people have given false confessions.
The most famous of the false confession cases is the infamous Norfolk Four. United States Naval Officers, Tice, Williams, Dick and Wilson, stationed at the naval base in Norfolk Virginia were convicted of the brutal rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997. The only evidence against the sailors was the coerced confessions by a detective who was later charged and convicted for police misconduct (knowingly extracting false confessions). In that case the detective, Detective Ford, fed to the sailors held back facts of the case that only the detective knew, and later typed those facts into the signed or taped confessions. Even when the real killer, Omar Ballard, was charged and convicted based on DNA evidence, and his confession that he committed the crime alone, the police still refused to dismiss the charges against the Norfolk Four. Detective Ford knew that Sailor Dick was innocent because navel logs showed that Sailor Dick was on the ship U.S. Saipan at the time of the murder.
The Norfolk four continued to maintain that their confessions, which were either signed or taped, were made on the basis that they were coerced with threats that included that they would receive the death penalty if they did not plead guilty.
This was not the first time Detective Ford was accused of extracting false confessions from suspects. In the Lafayette Grill case in 1990 he was also accused of similar misconduct. Detective Ford was known to brag to fellow detectives that he could coerce a false confession out of anyone to solve a crime, regardless of person’s innocence, or lack of evidence against the accused.
All of the Norfolk Four defendants were sentenced to long prison sentences and in 2008 30 retired FBI agents asked the governor of Virginia to pardon the sailors.
After spending many years in prison the Norfolk Four were eventually pardoned over the objections of the State Attorney General who for years fought against their release knowing that the four were truly innocent.
Another infamous and troubling case was the false confession of Douglas Warney who spent nine years in prison for a murder which he did not commit. At the time of his confession Mr. Warner was suffering from AIDS and AIDS dementia. In that case the police claimed that Mr. Warney confessed to the crime and with facts that only the murderer would know. Unfortunately, the facts which they claimed he knew about the murder were facts which the facts also knew and which they fed to him. In the Warney prosecution there were no witnesses, no physical evidence, or DNA evidence to link Mr. Warney to the crime. Mr. Warney was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence and the arrest and conviction of the person who committed the crime whose DNA was at the crime scene.
The American Psychological Association has continually maintained in their studies that susceptible individuals subject to common police interrogation techniques will confess to anything. Even less susceptible individuals often confess to crimes that they did not commit with the false and misleading information from the detective that “if you just tell me what I want to hear, we will wrap this up and you will be going home.” Or, if “you admit to what you did, you will not be charged with a crime.” Of course, all of these lies are done off the audio-visual camera.
I am currently handling a pending case in Union County New Jersey in which I am representing an individual who was tricked into given a confession to a crime in which he did not commit. A motion to suppress the statements is pending with the court, and it is likely that the confession will be thrown out. In that case the detective interrogating my client asked my client what happened and when the facts did not conform to the facts of the crime, the detective told him what to say. Fortunately, in that case all of the promises and lies were off camera. However, the feeding of the facts to my client was captured on video and will make the difference in suppressing the statement as being a product of a coerced false confession.
Law Office of Vincent J. Sanzone, Jr.
Elizabeth, New Jersey
Dated: June 22, 2011