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The Substance of False Confessions


Brandon L. Garrett


University of Virginia School of Law

April 15, 2010

Stanford Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, 2010
Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2010-11

Abstract:     
A puzzle is raised by cases of false confessions: How could an innocent on convincingly confess to a crime? Postconviction DNA testing has now exonerated over 250 convicts, more than forty of whom falsely confessed to rapes and murders. As a result, there is a new awareness that innocent people falsely confess, often due to psychological pressure placed upon them during police interrogations. Scholars increasingly examine the psychological techniques that can cause people to falsely confess and document instances of known false confessions. This Article takes a different approach, by examining the substance of false confessions, including what was said during interrogations and how the confession statements were then litigated at trial and postconviction. Doing so sheds light on the phenomenon of confession contamination. Not only can innocent people falsely confess, but all except two of the exonerees studied were induced to deliver false confessions with surprisingly rich, detailed, and accurate information. We now know that those details could not have likely originated with these innocent people, but rather must have been disclosed to them, most likely during the interrogation process. However, our constitutional criminal procedure does not regulate the postadmission interrogation process, nor do courts evaluate the reliability of confessions. This Article outlines a series of reforms that focus on the insidious problem of contamination, particularly videotaping interrogations in their entirety, but also reframing police procedures, trial practice, and judicial review. Unless criminal procedure is reoriented towards the reliability of the substance of confessions, contamination of facts may continue to go undetected, resulting in miscarriages of justice.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 70

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Date posted: October 7, 2008 ; Last revised: April 15, 2010

Suggested Citation

Garrett, Brandon L., The Substance of False Confessions (April 15, 2010). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, 2010; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2010-11. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1280254

Contact Information

Brandon L. Garrett (Contact Author)
University of Virginia School of Law ( email )
580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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