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False confessions: Taping interrogations won't protect suspects from themselves

Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO- When the interrogation starts, the man is emphatic: He had nothing to do with his girlfriend's death in a hit-and-run. By the end, he's whimpering as he describes hitting her with his car and driving away.

Case closed.

The only problem was, physical evidence showed Raymond Wood did not commit the crime. After a year in jail, the Maine courts threw out his videotaped confession and set him free.

It may be hard to imagine people confessing to crimes they didn't commit, but experts say police interrogation tactics _ even perfectly legal, nonviolent tactics _ can be so powerful they trap the innocent as well as the guilty.

In Illinois, it happened recently in the case of Riley Fox, a 3-year-old girl whose body was found in a creek last summer.

After hours of interrogation, her father confessed to raping and murdering the girl, but DNA evidence later showed he wasn't the culprit. The charges were dropped after he spent eight months in jail.

Illinois' new requirement that police record interrogations in homicide cases can't ensure that every confession is the truth. But it will give judges and juries the chance to see how the confession emerged and whether it was the product of coaching by police.

"My hope is that this reform will enable courts to finally begin to draw some bright lines for law enforcement about what is and is not an acceptable level of coercion," said Steve Drizin, an expert on false confessions and legal director at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Violence and threats already are barred, as are direct promises of leniency in exchange for a confession. But police can lie to suspects all they want, claiming to have physical evidence or witnesses that don't exist.

And Drizin and others said innocent suspects can often give plausible confessions because their interrogators suggest scenarios and mention facts from the crime.

Police Cmdr. Neil Nelson of St. Paul, Minn., said he once elicited a false confession, but reviewing the interrogation on tape made him doubt the confession and the suspect wasn't charged.

"You realize maybe you gave too much detail as you tried to encourage him and he just regurgitated it back," Nelson said.

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