On the heels of Friday’s release of the West Memphis Three — three men who were imprisoned for nearly 18 years for child murders they say they did not commit — law professor Brandon Garrett examines false confessions and the shortcomings of poorly recorded interrogation in
a post on the Harvard University Press blog
After a 12-hour police interrogation, one of the teenagers, Jessie Misskelley Jr., implicated the other two, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. Misskelley’s confession eventually served as the basis for all three arrests. Several rounds of DNA testing in recent years have failed to turn up any physical evidence connecting the three men to the crime scene.
The lawyers for the Three maintained that Misskelley’s confession was false, unreliable and included all sorts of statements totally inconsistent with how the crime happened. Misskelley was borderline mentally retarded, with an IQ of 72, yet police persisted with his lengthy interrogation. The few recorded pieces of the interrogations showed police using leading questions to try to tell him what had happened, something that interrogators are trained not to do because it contaminates a confession. We do not know what threats or other techniques were used to secure that confession. Misskelley had promptly recanted his confession, but it was used to arrest and convict him.
Garrett’s new book, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” examines the central causes of wrongful convictions, and he partnered with the Innocence Project to create our new multimedia widget, “Getting it Right.”
The vast majority of criminal cases lack usable DNA evidence. Like the West Memphis Three case, the 250 cases that I studied are all unusual cases in which the “truth machine” of DNA can call into question seemingly rock-solid evidence. That is why it is so important to learn from the wrongful convictions that do come to light – so that we can get it right.