A recent VICE magazine article, which is part of VICE News’ partnership with the American Justice Summit, examined why there are so many innocent people in U.S. prisons. False confessions have played a role in approximately 30% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence and have had a huge role in securing convictions of the innocent.
Raymond Santana along with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise were teenagers when the group was wrongfully convicted of raping and assaulting a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park more than two decades ago. Known as the “Central Park Five,” the young men gave false confessions which ultimately secured their convictions. Santana recalls how a detective lied to him during the interrogation and got him to admit to a crime he didn’t commit. A 1969 Supreme Court ruling made it legal for cops to lie to suspects in pursuit of confessions, and detective Hartigan, whom Santana remembers, took full advantage.
“He keeps telling me, ‘C’mon, Ray, you gotta help me out here,’” Santana says. “So I say, ‘All right, I was right there.’ And now I’ve just placed myself at the scene.”
Santana felt he was “helping” Hartigan. To that end, he added a final flourish, telling the detective that he had not only watched, but grabbed the jogger’s breasts at one point.
“He slides something over for me to sign,” Santana says. “Then he tells me to go see this other officer and tell him exactly what I just told him. So I do. No lawyer, no parent, no nothing.”
And that’s how you confess to a crime you didn’t commit.
For many reasons – including mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics like what happened with the “Central Park Five,” innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.
Guilty pleas and false confessions by the innocent are counterintuitive phenomena, says Rebecca Brown, director of state policy at the non-profit Innocence Project. But of the 321 DNA exonerations that have occurred in the United States, 30 have involved people who originally pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. It’s hard to accept that people who are innocent would knowingly incriminate themselves, but it happens frequently.
“Our cases are almost exclusively rapes and murders — very, very serious crimes — and even then, innocent people are pleading guilty,” Brown says. “Now spread that out across the entire system to include lower-level offenses, the vast majority of which are pled out, and the implications are clear.”