False confessions remain a cause for concern in Michigan criminal cases

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Many factors, including age, mental health and physical state, can put a person at risk for falsely confessing to an offense he or she did not commit.

To many people, a confession or guilty plea may seem like the end of a criminal case. The idea of people confessing to offenses they did not commit, from crimes of violence to sexual offenses, may seem unlikely or even unbelievable. Surprisingly, though, false confessions have been a factor in about 30 percent of wrongful convictions caught through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project. The risk of false confessions is one anyone facing criminal charges should appreciate.

Factors Underlying False Confessions

People may give false statements or confessions for a variety of reasons. External factors, including threats of violence or harsh sentencing, may give people incentive to make untrue admissions. A number of personal factors can also put a person at risk for falsely confessing, including the following:

  • Current state — People who are temporarily incapacitated due to fatigue, intoxication or other factors may be more prone to give false confessions.
  • Age — Adolescents may focus on short-term consequences, such as ending the interrogation, rather than long-term consequences; they also may be more vulnerable to leading or manipulative tactics.
  • Mental capabilities — People with mental disabilities or illnesses are also at a higher risk of giving false confessions, since they may misunderstand the situation or want to cooperate with authority figures.

A few of these variables were illustrated in a troubling 2013 Michigan case in which a mentally ill man falsely confessed to murder. According to The Lansing State Journal, the man, who was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, had not been given a formal diagnosis for any kind of mental illness at the time. However, there were indications he suffered from some kind of impairment.

During the interrogation, the man described himself as "crazy" and identified the month as August, rather than June. The answers he gave to several questions didn't make sense, and when asked about the murder, the man answered, "I don't know" at least twice before abruptly giving a confession. Later in the interrogation, he stated two times he had not committed the alleged offense.

Fortunately, in this case, authorities continued their investigation and finally dropped charges against the man. Still, the troubling circumstances of this confession suggest that greater steps should be taken to reduce the risk of other false confessions.

Preventing More False Confessions

The recording of all police interrogations is one measure authorities can take to guard against these confessions, according to The Innocence Project. Continuous recordings deter authorities from using questionable or illegal tactics, from threats to leading statements. A recording can also show whether a suspect gleaned seemingly incriminating information about the offense from the statements that authorities made.

Since 2013, Michigan law has required authorities to record certain interrogations, according to The Oakland Press News. Any time a person could face 20 years or more of imprisonment, the interrogation must be recorded. Though this is a beneficial measure, it does not offer protection for people facing serious charges with prison terms that are significant but shorter than 20 years.

Protecting personal rights

Anyone who has been accused of criminal activity in Michigan should consider consulting with a criminal defense attorney before making potentially damaging statements or admissions. An attorney may be able to assist a person in understanding his or her rights as well as the more favorable legal options.

Keywords: false, wrongful, confession, incarceration