False and Contaminated Confessions Prevalent in Death Row Exonerations

A report by University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett describes the effects of false confessions in cases in which DNA evidence later led to an exoneration. Garrett reports that half of the 20 death row inmates who were exonerated by DNA testing had falsely confessed to the crime. He uses the recent exonerations of intellectually disabled defendants Leon Brown and Henry McCollum in North Carolina to illustrate the problem: “The police claimed that Brown and McCollum had each separately told them in gruesome detail how the victim had been raped and murdered, including how she was asphyxiated by her own panties: we now know that they were innocent and their confession statements were contaminated – meaning that police must have actually told the brothers each of those facts during the interrogation.” Examining a data set of both capital and non-capital DNA exonerations, Garrett found that 65 of 69 false confessions were contaminated. In 19 of those cases, the defendants were convicted despite DNA testing that cleared them at the time of trial. In the case of Damon Thibodeaux, police did not conduct DNA tests that would have proved his innocence after securing a false confession after 9 hours of interrogation. In addition, 10 of the capital DNA exonerations featured false testimony from prison informants or snitches that that the defendant had confessed to them. Garrett concludes, “Interrogations themselves can be improved through safeguards such as videotaping. But the death penalty itself cannot be made foolproof – and indeed, high-profile murder investigations may be even more prone to tragic errors.”

(B. Garrett, “Coerced confessions and jailhouse snitches: why the death penalty is so flawed,” The Conversation, August 5, 2015.) See Innocence.