conference in Atlanta, University of Virginia associate law professor Brandon Garrett discussed his recent article on false confessions among people who were later exonerated by DNA evidence. His article, “The Substance of False Confessions,” appeared in the Stanford Law Review, and his research on DNA exonerations has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an interview with the Daily Progress, Garrett said that he studied the cases of 40 DNA exonerees who falsely confessed. His research included examining post-conviction claims, forensic evidence at trial, the interrogation process and eyewitness identification.
It may be that police lost track of what happened during a complicated interrogation. At trial, police might say that this person was not told these details about the crime.
What’s crucial is how the narrative unfolds during the conversation [between police and a suspect]. We’ve had cases where in jurisdictions that do videotape them, police realize that they contaminated the confession only after they saw videotape. Those cases did not turn into false confessions because of the safeguard of the videotape.
I was surprised to the degree to which eyewitnesses not only said they were certain at trial, but how many of them admitted that although they were certain at trial, they had earlier been uncertain or that police had used suggestive photo arrays. I didn’t expect them to talk about the ways their identifications were unreliable.
Garrett concluded that confessions often trump other evidence at trial. He also noted the momentum for reform to help prevent false confessions, primarily through the mandatory recording of interrogations.
There should be more meaningful reliability review. That review can happen if there is a record of the interrogation. Courts should more carefully scrutinize the reliability of forensic testimony. They should more [rigorously scrutinize] the reliability of eyewitness identification procedures.
We have incorrect outcomes, which raise accuracy concerns. In many respects, the reform out of these wrongful convictions will be much more useful at preventing false negatives.
Garrett is currently finishing his book, “Misjudging Innocence,” which will examine the first 250 DNA exoneration cases.