12/10/2002

N.Y. Jogger Case Shows How Confessions Can Be False

Robert Tanner, The Associated Press

Hours of interrogation, youthful suspects, police pressured by a city hungry for safety -- all those elements can combine to produce confessions that may not reveal the truth.

As New York absorbs the district attorney's request to throw out convictions of five men found guilty of raping a jogger in Central Park, many in the criminal justice system acknowledged that some suspects confess to crimes they didn't commit.

At least 27 overturned guilty verdicts in the past decade involved false confessions, according to the Innocence Project, a legal group that takes on wrongful conviction cases.

There's growing public awareness of the phenomenon, too. Court TV this week premiered "The Interrogation of Michael Crowe," the true story of a 14-year-old California boy who confessed to stabbing his 12-year-old sister and then later recanted. A drifter has been tied by DNA evidence to the crime and is facing charges.

Often, the suspects are young, like the five who confessed in the jogger case -- boys between 14 and 16 years old when the crime stunned the city in 1989. People in their position are frightened and easily influenced by aggressive investigators, said lawyers and criminal justice professors.

The Central Park case remains a matter of dispute. Lawyers for the five convicted say police coerced innocent black and Hispanic teens into confessing that they attacked the white victim during a spree of assaults and harassment that spurred its own buzzword -- "wilding."

The former sex crimes prosecutor who led the investigation, Linda Fairstein, defended the detectives' work and told a magazine she was still convinced that the five teens were guilty.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly yesterday said the new developments neither exonerated the five men nor found that police coerced the confessions.

The 58-page report that accompanied the request to vacate the convictions makes no mention of "innocence," but rather of "significant weaknesses" in the confessions, problems with discrepancies in the confessions and new evidence that emerged about that April night.

A convicted rapist confessed in January that he alone raped the woman, and DNA evidence tied him to the crime; more DNA testing ruled out hairs used in the trial to link some of the five to the crime.

Nationally, overturning convictions often hinges on new DNA evidence. In August, a judge threw out the conviction of a Detroit man who spent 17 years in prison for raping and murdering a teenage girl; he had confessed. Last December in Chicago, three men were freed after serving more than a decade in prison for rape and murder; one had confessed.

But how could someone falsely confess to a crime? Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor, said the old days of police "browbeating" confessions out of suspects are largely gone -- thanks to courts and new police policies -- but some coercion is still allowed.

"There's a fine line between legal coercion and illegal coercion," Alpert said. "The good cop-bad cop routine, that's totally legal and appropriate."

Professor Jim Cohen, who heads the Fordham University School of Law clinical program, described the possible police mindset in the Central Park case as officers connecting some teens who made them suspicious with a crime that left the victim comatose for a dozen days.

"These guys (the defendant youths) weren't sitting in a church; you knew they were up to no good," he said. "And certainly the condition this young woman was in suggested more than one person. Now, you just need to find some proof."

Professors and defense lawyers say the best way to protect against inappropriate or illegal interrogations is to videotape them from start to finish.

Many police and prosecutors nationally defend police interrogation techniques and are skeptical when confessions are recanted. They said the overwhelming majority of suspects who confess are guilty, despite their age, and investigators always seek corroborating evidence.

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