American police interrogations are built on the assumption that innocent people never confess to crimes they didn’t commit. But in fact, false confessions are fairly common. The evidence that they occur with some frequency really began to pile up in the 1990s, when DNA evidence began to exonerate convicted criminals–including many who had confessed. Since then, researchers have classified known false confession cases into three categories. Some innocent people confess voluntarily in order to attract attention. Others confess to appease an aggressive inves-tigator, desperate to put an end to a grueling interrogation–these are called “compliant” false confessions. And still other people offer “internalized” false confessions: In the interrogation process, they actually become momentarily persuaded that they’re guilty. Here are a few notable examples of these three varieties of self-incrimination.
EXAMPLE: The Black Dahlia confessors
In January 1947, the body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, carefully posed and severed in half at the waist. Luridly dubbed the Black Dahlia by newspapers, Short became the object of overwhelming public attention, including some of an especially peculiar kind. Estimates vary, but anywhere from dozens ?to hun-dreds of people came forward to falsely confess to her killing, including transient Daniel S. Voorhees (above). Some couldn’t even identify Short in a lineup of ?photographs. Police never solved Short’s murder, making it one of LA’s most famous cold cases. Other high-profile crimes–like the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping and the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey–have also generated loads of voluntary false confessions.
EXAMPLE: The Central Park Five
Following the rape of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989, five teenage boys of color–Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise–were accused and interrogated for 14 to 30 hours each. They confessed but later recanted, saying they had only given in to end the lengthy interrogations. In 2002 a serial rapist confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence backed his admission. The exonerated men won $41 million in a settlement with New York City and have been the subject of numerous books and a Ken Burns film.
EXAMPLE: Peter Reilly
After 18-year-old Peter Reilly reported finding his mother dead in their home one night in 1973, he became the primary suspect in her murder. Thinking he had nothing to hide from police, Reilly volunteered to take a polygraph test. Investigators told him he’d failed it (he’d actually passed) and eventually convinced him of his own guilt. After hours of interrogation, Reilly delivered a full written confession. (“I remember slashing once at my mother’s throat with a straight razor I used for model airplanes.”) Reilly went to prison but was exonerated after new evidence proved that his story didn’t match the timeline of his mother’s death. The saga inspired the 1978 TV movie A Death in Canaan.