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False Confessions

On October 6, 2015, Johnny Hincapie’s conviction for a 1990 murder was overturned. Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Hincapie was one of many defendants tried in the New York City subway stabbing of an out-of-town tourist. For 25 years, Mr. Hincapie has maintained his innocence, claiming that he was a bystander who got swept up in the case and that he was coerced into a false confession.

Mr. Hincapie’s conviction was overturned based on new evidence, namely new testimony from witnesses and a co-defendant. The judge did not declare Mr. Hincapie innocent, and prosecutors may still decide to file an appeal or retry Mr. Hincapie for the murder.

Prevalence of False Confessions

It can be difficult to understand or accept the high prevalence of false confessions. Many people may assume that no one would ever confess to a crime unless he or she was, in fact, guilty of that crime. Unfortunately, that is not the case. According to The Innocence Project, more than one out of four people who were convicted of a crime and later exonerated of that same crime made a false confession or incriminating statement.

How does a False Confession happen?

There are a number of factors that can contribute to a situation in which an innocent person may falsely confess or make an otherwise incriminating statement to law enforcement. The Innocence project identifies duress and coercion by the police, diminished capacity or mental impairment of the suspect, and threats of an otherwise harsh sentence as well as a misunderstanding of the system as just some of the reasons why someone may give a false confession when they have not committed a crime. A Time magazine article discussing the prevalence of false confessions notes that in a study done by a University of Virginia law professor, of the cases in which innocent people were exonerated of a crime for which they were convicted, many of the defendants who gave false confessions were young or mentally disabled. Of course, none of these factors work in a vacuum. For example, a suspect who is young, and who does not understand the situation or his or her legal rights, may be more susceptible to coercive interrogation tactics.

Combatting False Confessions

There are a number of suggestions to reduce the prevalence of false confessions. One step that should already be in place is to have law enforcement officers give Miranda warnings, which inform a suspect of his or her rights, prior to any interrogation. In theory, once a defendant learns of his or her rights, the suspect will exercise his or her right to remain silent or right to counsel. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, when a defendant asks to speak to his or her attorney, the police questioning must cease until the lawyer is present – which could dramatically reduce the risk of a false confession.

A key aspect of reform is ensuring that all police interrogations are both audio and video recorded. In addition to a number of other benefits, a recording provides an objective record of the confession, as well as any coercive or threatening behavior on the part of law enforcement officers.

If you or your loved one is involved in a criminal investigation, contact the experienced Florida attorneys at The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.

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