As Miranda Decision Turns 50, False Confessions Still Affect Death Penalty

On June 13, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona, granting suspects critical constitutional protections designed to combat abusive police interrogation practices. In commentary for The Marshall Project, Samuel Gross (pictured) and Maurice Possley of the National Registry of Exonerations discuss the interplay between false confessions, the death penalty, and wrongful convictions and describe how Miranda’s famous rights to remain silent and to be represented by a lawyer during an interrogation have failed to prevent numerous false confessions and false charges against others. Nearly a quarter of the 1,810 exonerations recorded in the National Registry of Exonerations involve false or fabricated confessions, including 227 (13%) cases in which suspects falsely confessed and 195 (11%) cases in which they falsely implicated someone else. Despite being given their “Miranda warning,” many suspects agree to speak with interrogators without a lawyer present and confess to crimes they did not commit, as a result of the mental stress of interrogation, threats of severe punishment if they do not cooperate, deceptive interrogation practices, or because they do not understand what they are doing. 72% of all exonerees with reported mental illness or intellectual disability had falsely confessed. Among them was Earl Washington, a man with an IQ of about 69, who was convicted of a rape and murder after falsely confessing during two days of interrogations, despite the fact that his confession was full of errors about the facts of the crime. He spent 16 years on death row in Virginia before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Gross and Possley explain that “some innocent suspects … blame others to deflect responsibility and reduce their punishment.” They point to the case of Richard Ochoa, who, to avoid the death penalty, falsely implicated his roommate Richard Danziger as the actual killer in a 1988 murder in Austin, Texas, pled guilty to a murder he did not commit, and testified against Danziger at trial. In 2002, both were exonerated by DNA. The authors praise the Miranda decision as an important step in regulating coercive interrogation practices, but say additional reforms are needed. In particular, they recommend that all interrogations, especially in homicide cases, be recorded, as already required in 23 states. They write, “Recording greatly helps us evaluate any claim that a confession was false, and it has taught us how to improve the conduct of interrogations.”

(S. Gross and M. Possley, “For 50 Years, You’ve Had ‘The Right to Remain Silent’,” The Marshall Project, June 12, 2016.) See Innocence.

For some examples of exonerated individuals who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death based upon false or fabricated convictions, see Debra Milke (Arizona), Joseph Brown and David Keaton (Florida), Joseph Burrows, Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Ronald Jones, Ronald Kitchen, Leroy Orange, and Aaron Patterson (Illinois), Johnny Ross and Damon Thibodeaux (Louisiana), Jeremy Sheets (Nebraska), Leon Brown and Henry McCollum (North Carolina), Ronald Williamson (Oklahoma), and Earl Washington (Virginia) on the DPIC Innocence Cases webpage.