Recent claims have been made that police have obtained "false" confessions from innocent persons and that these false confessions have even led to the conviction of innocent persons. This article scrutinizes these claims, examining in detail a number of alleged false confessions collected in a recent paper by Professors Richard Leo and Richard Ofshe. After close examination of trial court records and other similar sources, the article concludes that these allegedly false confessions were in all likelihood actually true confessions given by guilty criminals.
The article concludes by exploring the lessons that might be drawn from the high proportion of guilty criminals in the collection of "innocent" false confessors. Academic research on miscarriages of justice should not rely on mass media descriptions of the evidence against criminal defendants. The media too often slants its coverage in the direction of discovering "news" by finding that an innocent person has been wrongfully convicted. Moreover, reliance on second-hand media accounts overgeneralizes the false confession problem, obscuring the fact that the false confession problem is apparently concentrated among a narrow and vulnerable population: the mentally retarded.