False Confessions and Threats of the Death Penalty

A recent article in The Atlantic by Marc Bookman (pictured) shows how threats of the death penalty can contribute to false confessions. The piece recounts a Pennsylvania murder case in which two defendants, Russell Weinberger and Felix Rodriguez, admitted to a murder they did not commit, leading to their imprisonment for over 21 years. Rodriguez described his interrogation: "First they showed me pictures of the dead guy. I started to cry. I said I didn't do that. That's when they slapped me on the back of my head, said 'They gonna put you in the electric chair.' So I signed the statement. I knew it might be bad, but I didn't know what to do. I'd never been in real trouble before. I signed the statement 'cause they said I could go home."  Weinberger, who was intellectually disabled with an IQ between 60 and 65, at first denied involvement in the murder, but later submitted a confession after Rodriquez implicated him in the crime. Weinberger was offered a lesser sentence if he agreed to testify against Rodriguez. Twenty years later in March 2001, a prison inmate named Anthony Sylvanus (represented by Mr. Bookman) admitted to committing 5 similar murders, including the one Weinberger and Rodriguez had confessed to. Sylvanus revealed facts that only the true perpetrator was likely to know. Rodriguez and Weinberger were eventually allowed to plead nolo contendere and were released from prison after serving 21 years.

Bookman points to reforms that might prevent such false confessions: "Experts like [Richard] Leo and [Saul] Kassin recommend a series of reforms that might reduce the risk of wrongful conviction: orienting the police interrogation model away from 'confrontational' and toward 'investigative;' placing limits on the length of interrogations; precluding the presentation of false evidence to an accused person as real evidence of his guilt; eliminating implicit promises of leniency; and implementing special protections for vulnerable populations such as juveniles and those with cognitive or psychological impairments. Above all is the recommendation that police departments videotape interrogations in their entirety. Eleven years after two men were released from their wrongful prison terms, the City of Philadelphia has adopted none of these recommendations."

Sylvanus committed suicide in prison. Weinberger died in 2011. Rodriguez, at age 54, walks with a cane and has slurred speech, having suffered a stroke. His mother died while he was still in prison.

(M. Bookman, "The Confessions of Innocent Men," The Atlantic, August 6, 2013.) See Innocence and Arbitrariness.