How false confessions became an American criminal justice phenomenon

Jeffrey Deskovic didn’t see it coming. For nearly six weeks after the 1989 rape, beating, and murder of Angela Correa — a 15-year-old classmate of his whose body was found two days after she had gone missing — Deskovic, then 16, had helped the cops in his hometown of Peekskill, New York, with everything. He spoke to students at his high school who were afraid to speak with law enforcement. He confirmed leads and passed along rumors that he had heard. He was even awarded praise by police for his help.

“The career I wanted to have at that time was to be a cop, so that and my age was how the cops were able to pull the wool over my eyes,” he said, many years later. “That a 16-year-old could assist in an active homicide investigation.”

One day, the police told Deskovic that they had new information in the case, and that he would have to take a polygraph test in order for them to share it. A “help you, to help us,” type of scenario is how Deskovic later described it. So he obliged, and instead of going to school, he arrived at the Peekskill Police Department, where others had taken a polygraph before him. He was then taken to another town, in another county, where his role quickly switched from ambitious teen eager to help officials to prime suspect in a murder case.

He lists off the details of that fateful day with ease: Small room. No attorney present. No food. Countless cups of coffee. No video camera. There were three officers he knew to be present as well as a polygraphist. Deskovic was handed a brochure on the test, which laid out what he was agreeing to by taking it, even though he didn’t understand the full scope of what he was about to do. “I pushed past my own concerns, because I figured, well, I was there to help the police,” he said later. “So what does it matter?”

Over the course of the next few hours, Deskovic said he was psychologically broken. The interrogating officer raised his voice and invaded his personal space. The same questions were asked over and over. The one officer who he had befriended in Peekskill—a positive male role model that Deskovic said he looked up to being a product of a single-parent household—told him that the other officers were going to hurt him if he didn’t confess. And that if he did, he’d be able to go home. Or, at the very worst, a mental hospital, but for so short that his parents wouldn’t even notice that he was gone.

“I pushed past my own concerns, because I figured, well, I was there to help the police, so what does it matter?”

“I was in fear of my life,” said Deskovic. “The fact that I didn’t know where I was, and that nobody else knew where I was either, loomed very largely in my mind. I was overwhelmed.”

And so, after finding himself on the floor in a fetal position, in tears, Deskovic confessed to the raping, beating, and murdering of Angela Correa, using information police fed him. It was never recorded, videotaped, or signed; rather, the supervising officer testified in court that Deskovic had admitted it, against DNA evidence that didn’t match his own. A jury found the 16-year-old guilty of all charges, and sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison in 1990.

He served 16 of those years before he was exonerated. The reason: DNA was later found that matched another person—a man who had been imprisoned for a different murder in the same county. That person subsequently confessed to the brutal crimes for which Deskovic had been imprisoned. So why did Deskovic ever confess to those crimes?

Often in false confessions, a law enforcement official will feed an innocent person a script, including details only the true perpetrator would know.

False confessions are at the heart of The Innocent Man, a Netflix docuseries that premieres this Friday, based on the nonfiction novel of the same name by John Grisham. By revisiting a timeline of violent crimes in one small Oklahoma town—and the false confessions that put innocent men there behind bars for years—the film once again explores a phenomenon that the American criminal justice system is only just beginning to grapple with.

When he was released from prison in 2006, Deskovic was said to be the 184th person to be exonerated due to DNA evidence in America since 1989 — and there have been many others since. According to the Innocence Project, 25 percent of those cases included false confessions or incriminating statements.

By understanding this phenomenon, advocates, lawmakers and researchers hope to plug up the systemic holes that allow these confessions to slip out. And it all starts with two essential questions: What’s been happening during these interrogations? And, better yet, why are innocent people even being interrogated?

Steven Drizin, who teaches law at Northwestern University and helped found the university’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said that the case of Jeffrey Deskovic occurred in the middle of an era when false confessions ballooned in size and scale.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as crack cocaine hit the streets of major urban centers, a wave of violence erupted unlike anything that had been seen on the streets of most urban centers,” said Drizin. Most murders were drug-related, he added: gang fights, turf fights, substance-driven fights. He cited two cities, New York and Chicago, as examples.

Drizin maintains that when looking at the attributes that precede a false confession, a pattern begins to emerge. The case in question has usually gone unresolved for weeks or months, so the urge for closure turns a police department’s belief into orthodoxy. “What happens is that the more murders [there are] unsolved on the whiteboards in police departments, [the more] pressure [there is] to solve [these] cases.” This was before DNA evidence was accepted into mainstream court practice and so confessions were a key tool for cops to get convictions. “When there is a rise in violent crimes, and a number of unsolved homicides, confessions become an easy way to take cases off that whiteboard,” Drizin said.

False confessions are often used as a way to quell public concern as pressure mounts on law enforcement officials to settle unsolved cases.

A suspect’s repeated claims of innocence have begun to frustrate officers, thereby heightening the chances of coercion. Interrogation tactics that Deskovic describes—extended length, abrasion, sleep or food deprivation, and suggestions of leniency—are common. As is a line of questioning, which constructs a scenario where the alleged crime can either be seen as impulsive or premeditated. “Police give two options: one that would paint the suspect as a monster, and the other, which provides an explanation for why they committed the crime,” Drizin said.

The character profiles of those who falsely confess also fall into a number of categories, said Richard Leo, a leading expert on false confessions at the University of San Francisco. The first being youth: a lack of emotional development and understanding of consequences leaves these individuals, like Deskovic, vulnerable to persuasion. One report asserted that teens are particularly more prone to admitting crimes they did not commit than adults. According to a study, which Drizin and Leo co-authored, 63 percent of false confessors surveyed were under the age of 25; 32 percent were under 18.

Two other demographics represented in this population include individuals who are intellectually challenged or mentally ill, Leo said. (One estimate says that more than half of prisoners in U.S. state and federal facilities suffer from some sort of mental illness.) Outside of this, Leo said that many individuals who falsely confess are mentally stable, but demonstrate two sets of personality traits. “You have suggestibility, or the tendency to yield,” he said. “And then compliancy, where someone is more likely to acquiesce.”

Yet even with this body of evidence known to researchers—from climates that lead to false confessions to vulnerable populations most likely to fall prey to it—the phenomenon continues to persist. Leo attributes this largely to three errors.

“First you have misclassification: interrogations are for the guilty, so why are innocent people being interrogated?” Leo said. “The second is coercion: how do you get someone to confess to something they didn’t do? And then, there’s the contamination error. This is when police have details and leak them, specifically so the innocent person will say a narrative that only the true perpetrator [would] know.”

Leo maintains that by addressing false confessions from those three problem areas, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and lawmakers can be better informed on how to best prevent them from entering the court system as evidence, and also, ever happening in the first place. “Recordings are a great advance, but they’re not a panacea,” Leo said. “You need better education at the front end, with police, and better safeguards in the back end, with the courts.”

To Leo, false confessions not only obstruct justice and hurt the lives of those wrongfully convicted, but they also cost the state and taxpayer money. For his case, Deskovic won $41.6 million in a lawsuit against the sheriff’s investigator Daniel Stephens and Putnam County.

“Recordings are a great advance, but they’re not a panacea. You need better education at the front end, with police, and better safeguards in the back end, with the courts.”

As for putting an end to false confessions, Leo and Drizin both suggested a number of remedies. They include the retraining of police officers in European-style investigative interviewing, where the point of questioning is to get a narrative that you can later disprove and then corner the suspect with. Another would be for lawmakers to push for mandated video recording in all cases from the minute the interrogation starts. Further legal safeguards are needed too, they said; as it stands, judges toss out confessions as evidence if they are shown to be physically abusive, or if Miranda rights are not read. As of today, only certain states ban police officers from lying about evidence in interrogations, Leo said.

But for a person like Deskovic, the change comes from entering the system that wronged you. In May of 2019, Deskovic hopes to graduate from Pace University with a degree in law, and to start practicing after he passes the bar exam. “I want to exonerate people like myself,” is how he has put it. From that perch, Deskovic, now 45, wants to further advocate for pre-trial hearings on confessions, if they are key parts of evidence in a case; to pressure defense attorneys to act more aggressively in calling their own defendants to the stand; and to try to raise more public awareness about what’s at stake for people like him.

“I feel like I have an advantage over people who have not been through it,” Deskovic said. “I feel like it makes a difference. I look at things in that multi-faceted [lens], and am not overly persuaded by one or the other. Mentally, I’m not melded to the groupthink.”

“I think that each person who makes it out, who is exonerated, opens it up a little bit more for the next person coming along,” he continued. “There’s an opening of the mind.”