Former Municipial Court Judge

Former Assistant District Attny.

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True Lies or False Truths? The Problem of False Confessions

Tim Powers

Law Office of Tim Powers


When the Los Angeles Police Department recently asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to examine crime-scene evidence in a two-decades-old murder case, the request shed light on a phenomenon that many find hard to believe in: false confessions.

On a March day in 1983, Bruce Lisker arrived at his parent's house in a suburb of Los Angeles to find his mother, barely clinging to life. Lisker called the paramedics and later told his story to detective Andrew Monsue, who thought that the seventeen-year-old was lying. The teenager was arrested, convicted, and sentenced; and he remains in prison on a life sentence.

The conviction rested largely on the suspect's confessions. A jailhouse informant testified that Lisker had confessed to him through a hole in the wall between their cells while the two were being detained at the Los Angeles County Jail. Later, Lisker confessed to the murder with the belief that his admission was required for a plea bargain. When he became eligible for parole, Lisker, believing it was what the parole board wanted to hear, admitted to the killing for the last time. But for over ten years, Lisker has consistently maintained his innocence. He avers that the confessions were desperate attempts to minimize his time behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.

Evidence against another suspect, now dead from a drug-induced suicide, is so strong that his own mother believes that he was the killer. (The trial court judge had granted the prosecutions motion to exclude all evidence regarding the other suspect, partly due to Lisker's ineffective counsel.) Even the man who prosecuted Lisker says, I now have reasonable doubt (Id.).

Why Confess?

Confessions tend to be the most damning kind of evidence because it is hard to believe that a person would admit to a crime that he did not commit. But the possibility of false confessions is proved when different parties confess to the same crime. For example, a group of juveniles confessed to the infamous attack on the Central Park jogger. Later, an unrelated individual claimed responsibility for the same crime (Cassel). It is inescapable that at least one of the parties confessed falsely.

In general, Police interrogation tactics are so sophisticated, they bring people to the brink of hopelessness that leaves them two options: to confess guilt and hope for some leniency, or maintain innocence in which case the system will crush them. Under those circumstances, innocent people will confess, says Steve Drizin of the Northwestern University Law School (McDonald). The young, old, mentally ill or disabled, and drug-addicted are the most vulnerable classes. According to Drizin, Their vulnerability often leads to false confessions because they're eager to please and because of their navet about the criminal-justice system (Kresnak).

When an interrogator coaxes a confession, the suspect might not realize how damning the evidence will be. The danger is that only the transcript, without a tape, will be introduced at trial. So, although the suspect might not sound believable while confessing, the reading of the raw transcript will sound to the jury like a cold-blooded admission.

In some cases, the police's tactics are not merely sophisticated, but savage.

Police Brutality and False Confessions

For twenty years, Jon Burge was a detective on the south side of Chicago, one of the toughest places in the U.S. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Burges battlefield experiences prepared him to combat crime in the most notorious neighborhoods in the City of Broad Shoulders. But Burge and his confederates did not get results by playing fair.

In the words of the University of Chicago's Locke Bowman, It has been for many years an open secret that at the police headquarters where Burge worked, a large number of African-American citizens were detained and subjected to horrific forms of abuse. Over the years, prisoners there have alleged a cornucopia of tortuous tactics during police interrogations. Their mostly consistent accounts describe terrifying methods by interrogators: mock executions with shotguns; pistol-whippings; beatings with boots and fists; applications of alligator clips or cattle-prods to sensitive parts of the body; and burning on radiators. The detectives even have pet names for some of the techniques, such as the Tucker Telephone (electric shocks) and the Dry Submarino (suffocating a suspect with a paper bag).

In many cases, law enforcement officers can rationalize their behavior. Richard Brzeczek, who was a police chief in Chicago at the time but who is now, explains that, in the minds of some police, Its OK because [the interrogation subject is] going to do the time for all the crimes he didn't get caught for. Or in some cases, the attitude is: We know he did it, but we have to circumvent these goofy rules of due process, either by lying or fabricating evidence, whatever it takes to convict this person.

The beginning of the end of Burges tenure in Chicago came when detectives left too many incriminating injuries on a suspect that they had beaten in order to get a confession.

The shooting of three Chicago police officers in 1982 whipped the department into a frenzy, the brunt of which fell squarely onto one Andrew Wilson. Wilson was apprehended five days after the shooting. After thirteen hours in custody, he confessed to killing the officers. Arriving at the county jail, Wilson showed bruises and cuts on his head; a torn retina; burns on his chest and thighs; U-shaped marks on his body; and alligator-clip marks on his ears, nose, and genitals. His appearance was so severe that the jail refused to admit him unless a doctor examined him first no officer wanted to be blamed for whatever had happened to him.

Wilson was convicted for the murders and sentenced to death. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the confession because of the beating the defendant had sustained while in police custody. On remand, Wilson was again found guilty but received a life sentence. He then brought a civil suit against Burge, the City of Chicago, and others. Eventually, he was paid $1.1 million.

The stories about Burge were only symptomatic of a systemic problem in the Illinois justice system. In recognition of these failures, Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty within his state, which has been upheld by the new governor.

The Best Advice

The best advice about giving a confession is: do not do it. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that no person shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. So, no one ever has to admit to a crime. It is the state's duty to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect has broken the law.

The Constitution also ensures that a defendant may have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense (Amendment VI). A criminal suspect should never talk to police without an attorney present. In some cases, when a defendant is guilty, it might be in his interest to confess. But this decision should be made only upon the advice of an attorney who is truly representing the suspect's best interests.

If you are seeking aggressive criminal representation by an experienced criminal defense attorney for your Denton County criminal case or arrest in Denton County, contact the offices of Tim Powers today. There is no charge or obligation for the initial consultation. 940.580.2899.

*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult an attorney.