Two Recently Confirmed False Confessions: Byron A. Halsey and Jeffrey M. Deskovic

Article excerpt

In the past decade "false confessions" have emerged as a major area of research and practice in forensic psychology and psychiatry. Most prominent among the factors for this emergence has been the media coverage of high profile false confession cases. Not long ago false confessions were viewed as an anomaly, but in the past decade DNA exonerations coupled with social science research, have focused attention on how false confessions can arise from common interrogation practice. This article explores two recent high profile cases where false confessions were obtained and explores the various factors involved. Modern psychological interrogation, criminal profiling literature, and polygraphy suggest to law enforcement that they can reliably identify "criminals" without adequate investigation. Thus reliance on these sources for evidence of guilt warrants careful review.

In the past decade "false confessions" have emerged as a major area of research and practice in forensic psychology and psychiatry (Gudjonsson, 2003; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004; Lassiter 2004; Heilbrun, Marczyk, DeMatteo, 2002; Melton, Petrila, Poythress, & Slobogin, 2007). A variety of factors have contributed to the scholarly focus and attention on false confessions. Most prominent among the factors has been the media coverage of high profile false confession cases such as, Michael Crowe (McBreaty, 2002; Johnson, 2003), Christopher Ochoa (Falkenberg, 2001; Drizin, 2001), the Central Park Jogger defendants (Perrotta, 2002; Ryan, 2002), Lacresha Murray (In the Matter of LM, 1999; Peopleofthehheart.org, 2004), the Chicago preadolescents in the Ryan Harris homicide (Kotlowitz, 1999), Tom Sawyer (Ofshe, 1989), the Buddhist Monks homicides (Leo & Ofshe, 1998) multiple British cases reported by Gudjonsson (2003), the Martin Tankleff case (Castillo, 2007) as well as the Halsey and Deskovic cases described below. The identification and confirmation of false confession cases has been enhanced by the application of DNA science to crime investigation as described in the influential book Actual Innocence (Scheck, Neufeld, & Dwyer, 2000). This process has resulted in unambiguous confirmation of false confessions in an expanding number of cases (Drizin & Leo, 2004). Not long ago false confessions were viewed as an anomaly, but in the past decade DNA exonerations coupled with social science research, have focused attention on how false confessions can arise from common interrogation practice. In a recent publication (Citron & Johnson, 2006), it was argued that mental health experts should avoid use of the term "false confessions," because it implies that psychiatric and psychological experts can determine the accuracy or truth of incriminating statements. Rather, the more relevant scope of expert testimony involves the concept of reliability of disputed confession evidence. However, the term "false confession" has become part of the common public and academic lexicon.

Retrospective analysis and examination of confirmed false confessions can be instructive for future research as well as providing lessons for forensic consultation and expert witness testimony (Fulero, 2004). Thus the archival record of the 1985 Halsey and 1989 Deskovic cases are valuable resources that contribute to our understanding of the phenomena of false confessions in the context of criminal interrogation and prosecution. Central to this is how the false confessions were confirmed in these two cases. Gudjonsson (2003) notes that while doubt is warranted, false confessions certainly occur, and what is required is thorough informed investigation. According to Gudjonsson, false confessions are identified by a variety of means, such as new forensic (often DNA) evidence, new alibi evidence, the confession and/or conviction of another party, new mental health evidence, or characteristics of the post-admission narrative that render the admission improbable (discussed further below). …