New York Law School

The Persistent Problem of False Confessions

“I was there.” These three words became the crux of prosecutors’ arguments in fifty-six cases now under review by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in New York. The undeniable likeness of the confessions, all elicited during interrogations conducted by detective Louis Scarcella, lead to suspicion that these confessions were coerced. Following the recent exoneration and release of David Ranta, who was imprisoned for over two decades for a murder he did not commit,[1] several defendants currently serving lengthy prison sentences have come forward with damning information against Detective Scarcella. These defendants allege that their confessions were drafted for them and they were subsequently coerced to sign these statements using physical and mental tactics.[2]

One of the defendants now coming forward is Jabbar Washington. Mr. Washington, who is currently in prison for a murder he claims he did not commit, alleges that Detective Scarcella not only told him what to write, but also grabbed his neck and testicles to intimidate and compel him to sign the forged document.[3] Another defendant, Hector Lopez, convicted after allegedly setting a Brooklyn house on fire culminating in the death of two people, similarly attests to Detective Scarcella’s illegal tactics. Mr. Lopez was held in custody and subjected to a grueling twelve-hour interrogation. It was this onerous interrogation conducted by Detective Scarcella that finally broke Mr. Lopez and compelled his confession. Recently exonerated David Ranta claims he never confessed to Detective Scarcella, yet his confession contains the now formulaic language, “I was there.”[4]

An impulsive reaction may be to dismiss the claims of these defendants who are only now coming forward subsequent Mr. Ranta’s exoneration, which was achieved only after Detective Scarcella’s illegal manipulations were uncovered. It would be easier and more conscience settling to shift the accusation back to the convicted criminal rather than to consider the possibility that a detective would knowingly interfere in the course of justice. But this conscience rattling idea is not merely an idea, but an odious reality. It is an unyielding reality that disproportionately affects African-American and Latino men.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander elucidates why racial minorities in impoverished communities are the targets of coerced confessions. She identifies mass incarceration as a culprit. Support for mass incarceration was contemporaneous with President Reagan’s war on drugs. As Alexander points out, this “war” targeted the African-American youth in impoverished and blighted communities. This practice has transcended decades and these impoverished inner city communities remain an easy target for law enforcement. Law enforcement continues to focus on these communities because of the misperception that low-income neighborhoods are invariably areas with high incidents of crime. Because as a society we have analogized minorities and criminals, these groups become more susceptible to criminal scapegoating.

It is typical for minority youths to become the target of law enforcement agents monitoring these high crime areas. As young kids, they easily fall victim to police manipulation. The majority of these youths remain uneducated about their legal rights, specifically their right to counsel. Adolescence is in tandem with naivety. It is counterintuitive to distrust individuals entrusted with public protection, but police can and do lie. They can persuade young and uneducated individuals to sign incriminating statements by conditioning them with a fictional promise of release. Police also employ crooked witnesses who will lie for them and attest to a defendant’s participation in a crime irrespective of fact.[5]

In the cases now under review by the Brooklyn DA, coercing young defendants to confess and employing crooked witnesses lead to defendants’ false confessions and eventual wrongful convictions. Mr. Washington was just twenty-three years old when he was on trial for a murder he did not commit[6]. In Mr. Ranta’s case, the key witness, at the time of the proceedings just a thirteen year old, has since admitted that Det. Scarcella told him whom to pick from the lineup.[7] Mr. Lopez was broken after at least twelve hours of interrogations to admit to a crime he did not commit.[8]

The Brooklyn DA’s office has taken a positive step in correcting the wrongs of false confessions, but we need more preventative – not just remedial – solutions. In 2012, NYC Police Commissioner Kelly’s announced that the police department would now require custodial interrogations for serious offenses to be videotaped, in an effort to curb false confessions.[9] Ostensibly a major victory in NYC, but videotaping interrogations has not become law in NY State. Without legal mandate, police departments are not required to videotape, and the ones that do are not subject to guidelines that would ensure a fair recording. Without laws or regulations it is unclear how consistently or how thoroughly interrogations are being videotaped.

In addition to laws requiring and regulating the videotaping of interrogations, coercive tactics could be curbed if police who engaged in them were effectively penalized. Depending on the gravity of their tactics, their behavior could result in temporary, but lengthy, suspension. By incentivizing police to reduce their reliance on illicit methods it could reduce wrongful convictions. Another idea is to offer more intensive interrogation training that teaches the officers how to extract information without leading the suspects.

In addition, public schools should implement courses that advise youths of their legal rights. Young people will be better insulated from these insidious tactics if schools teach students about their rights when facing police. Most youths do not understand their Miranda Rights. They are unaware of the constitutional right to an attorney and the right against self-incrimination. If youths were aware of their constitutionally guaranteed rights they would be in a better position to protect themselves from lengthy interrogations that lead to false confessions. By empowering the youth with knowledge to defend themselves, they would be better prepared to handle situations where they are subject to mistreatment.

[1] Powell, Michael, Man Convicted in Rabbi’s Killing Faces Freedom With Apprehension, The New York Times (2013).

[2] Robles, Frances, Several Murder Confessions Taken by Brooklyn Detective Have Similar Language, The New York Times (2013).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Robles, Frances, A Conflict Is Seen in a Review of a Detective’s Conduct, The New York Times (2013).

[6] Robles, Frances, Several Murder Confessions Taken by Brooklyn Detective Have Similar Language, The New York Times (2013).

[7] Powell, Michael, Man Convicted in Rabbi’s Killing Faces Freedom With Apprehension, The New York Times (2013).

[8] Robles, Frances, Several Murder Confessions Taken by Brooklyn Detective Have Similar Language, The New York Times (2013).

[9] Innocence Project, NYPD to Video Record Interrogations (2012).

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