Corrupted Confessions and the DNA Exoneration Files
Stephanie A. Shepard
Indiana State University
Corrupted Confessions and the DNA Exoneration Files
Confessions in criminal cases are believed to be solid predictors of sentencing and verdicts without any further investigation or other evidence. However, simple research suggests that confessions may exercise influence not only by tainting jurors’ perceptions of the defendant, but also by tainting lay and expert witnesses who are entrusted to provide other evidence (Kassin, Bogart, ; Kerner, 2012). Improper convictions that contain or don’t contain a confession are based upon several errors, flawed forensic evidence, misidentification by eyewitnesses, and errors of the snitch. Confessions are not the only form of evidence persuasive enough to taint and it is important to answer these questions: are confession cases more likely than nonconfession cases to contain multiple evidence errors, are other types of errors likely to appear in confession cases and be prevalent, and in confession cases with multiple errors, was the confession or the other errors collected first (Kassin et al., 2012)? To answer these questions, a study was performed.
To tackle the study, links were made between errors made in wrongful-conviction cases involving a false confession and with those made in wrongful-conviction cases without a confession in evidence (Kassin et al., 2012). To see if confession statements really taint other evidence, an examination was performed on those who were acquitted based upon DNA from the case files of the Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is meant to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing (Kassin et al., 2012). By the summer of 2009, the Innocence Project had helped in about more than 230 DNA exonerations over a period of almost 20 years. In this study, coders counted whether different types of “contributing cases” were present or absent in each case, as listed by the Innocence Project (Kassin et al., 2012). The next step involved the coders evaluating how often the cases involved corrupted forensic-science evidence, a snitch, and a false witness. In confession cases containing multiple types of errors, the coders used the case documents to determine the order in which the confessions and other evidence were collected (Kassin et al., 2012). If the Innocence Project listed a mistaken eyewitness, a forensic-science error, or an informant as a contributing cause in a particular case, the coders listed it (Kassin et al., 2012).
Generally, 59 of the 241 DNA exonerations contained false confessions as a contributing cause (Kassin et al., 2012). In order of incidence, the other contributing causes were eyewitness misidentifications, invalid forensic-science evidence, and government informants (Kassin et al., 2012). Out of the 241 DNA exoneration cases, over half of them contained false confessions and more than 150 of them did not. About 130 of the 241 cases contained numerous errors and a comparison of the confession and nonconfession cases revealed that multiple errors were present in about 45 of the 59 confession cases and in over 80 of the 181 nonconfession cases (Kassin et al., 2012). Within the full set of confession cases, 45.76% were accompanied by one type of nonconfession error, 32.21% were accompanied by two types of nonconfession errors, and 22.03% contained no additional errors (Kassin et al., 2012). From these outcomes, false confessions were seen to be followed by faulty forensic science, flawed misidentifications from an eyewitness, and sneaks. In more than half of the cases confessions were more likely than the 181 nonconfession cases to contain flawed forensic-science evidence and more likely to have a snitch (Kassin et al., 2012). The confession cases were less likely than the cases with nonconfessions to have an inaccurate eyewitness (Kassin et al., 2012).
The most collective error in unlawful convictions was found to be mistaken identification by the witness, so the question that arose was to figure out whether the occurrence of confessions coincided with eyewitness identification errors? In order to answer this question, “pure” confession and eyewitness cases were compared by excluding more than 15 cases that contained both eyewitness identifications and confessions. Pure confession cases were found to contain additional types of errors in each case. These cases were more likely than the eyewitness cases to be accompanied by forensic-science errors and informant errors. It was predicted that confessions flaw other forms of evidence (Kassin et al., 2012). In order to test this theory, the case files of the more than 45 cases that contained a confession and faulty forensic science, error in eyewitness identification, or an informant error were looked at. The next phase involved the determination of whether each piece of evidence came first, second, or third in a specific series of collected evidence. Come to find out, more than 25 of these cases had confession as the first item of evidence collected, in 15 cases it was second, and in 1 case it was third (Kassin et al., 2012).
The progressive distributions of the four kinds of error (Kassin et al., 2012) were tested by the form of evidence and whether it came first, second, or third in the specific sequence. This examination revealed that eyewitness and false confession errors were more likely to be obtained first in the sequence, and forensic-science errors and informant errors were more likely to be obtained second or third in the sequence (Kassin et al., 2012). Evaluations that were performed confirmed that confessions were more likely to precede errors in forensic-science rather than following it (Kassin et al., 2012).
Based upon the study, I feel that confessions are powerful forms of evidence in criminal cases today. However, confessions are not the only forms of evidence that can be presented. Confessions can be corrupt and contain multiple errors including eyewitness misidentifications, faulty forensic evidence, and informant errors. Confessions can be accompanied by other evidence, such as forensic evidence, but in most cases, confessions are usually enough to a jury and to a judge to prosecute the person responsible for a crime. The study performed was able to accurately show the commonality between confession and nonconfession cases. The study revealed that confession and nonconfession cases contained multiple errors, other errors that were present in confession cases were able to take over, and the study showed that confession cases with numerous errors collected in a sequence due to confessions following into other evidence. Confessions involve other errors and this study evaluated the results carefully enough to show that both legalization and harmless error lean on the notion that other evidence on record is free of the confession (Kassin et al., 2012). Confessions are not the only forms of evidence that should be used in criminal cases and they shouldn’t be depended on constantly as the only form of prosecution and execution without other evidence alongside the confession to aid in the proper verdict.
Kassin, S. M., Bogart, D., ; Kerner, J. (2012). Confessions that corrupt: Evidence from the DNA exoneration case files. Psychological science, 23(1), 41-45.