Why People Confess to Crimes They Didn’t Commit [Video]
Lawyers.com reporter Lisa Reilly looks at a high profile miscarriage of justice, through a screening of Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Central Park Five.” A conference at Suffolk University Law School addressed forced confessions, showcased by the film.
Today marks the 24th anniversary of when a young, white woman, later known as the Central Park Jogger, was violently raped and beaten unconscious, while going for a run in New York City. The city was on edge, with the news media fueling fear and outrage, and a race to justice. Police rounded up five boys, ranging in ages from 14 to 17. Four were black. One was Hispanic. The media depicted them as a roving pack of animals, going on “wildings,” brutally attacking people for pleasure. Police interrogated the suspects, with 15 to 20 hours of questioning, manipulating them with lies. Without the presence of lawyers, all five teens gave false confessions.
Within weeks the defendants tried to withdraw their statements as coerced and untrue. None of their stories matched each others’ nor the physical evidence. None of the DNA evidence connected them to the crime. However, in 1990, based on their confessions, a jury convicted all five defendants.
In 2002, a convicted murderer and rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. His DNA matched the crime scene. The Central Park Five convictions were vacated and they were freed. But this was after they had already served seven to 13 years in prison. In 2003, the defendants filed a lawsuit against New York City police and prosecutors. A decade later, it remains unresolved.
Two of the defendants describe to Lawyers.com why they gave false confessions. Raymond Santana explains how meaningless the Miranda warnings and a right to an attorney are to a 14-year-old. “You’re thinking for what? I didn’t do anything wrong, so I don’t need a lawyers.”
Studies indicate that adolescents, the intellectually disabled and mentally ill are the most vulnerable to giving false confessions. They often cave under police tactics of long interrogations and presentation of false evidence.
Ken Burns daughter, co-director Sarah Burns, says she hopes the documentary can prevent forced confessions in the future. It serves as a solid reminder, especially following high profile tragedies, to avoid compounding heartbreaking losses with the loss of justice.