False confessions

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 23% of overturned homicide cases involved a false confession. As of 2018, 280 people have had their convictions overturned based, at least in part, on false confessions. Cases such as that of Henry Lee McCollum, a 19-year old with I/DD, who falsely confessed to the rape and murder of a child under intense police interrogation, demonstrate that people with I/DD and mental illness are uniquely susceptible to false confessions.

How Interrogations Work

In the book Representing People with Mental Disabilities, William C. Follette, Richard Leo, and Deborah Davis note in their chapter on False Confessions:

“The first goal of an interrogator is to question the suspect freely. To accomplish this and other goals, it is best not to raise resistance in the suspect to being questioned or to the interrogator. The interrogator may attempt to question the suspect, while not informing him or her that or she is suspected of the crime. Sometimes police ask people to come in for an interview to ‘help them’ with the investigation, but with no clarification about whether the person is actually a suspect or merely someone providing ‘helpful’ information this strategy also helps avoid the necessity of administering Miranda warnings that might make clear one’s status as a suspect and raise unwanted resistance. These are only required if the suspect is under arrest or would reasonably not feel free to refuse questioning. In many cases an interrogator can successfully proceed from the seemingly friendly ‘helping with the investigation’ phase of questioning into a long accusatory interrogation that results in a confession before Miranda rights are brought up.”

What Factors Can Lead to a False Confession?

  • Inability to Tolerate Distressing Situations–interrogations are designed to increase anxiety. People with I/DD and mental illness can find it challenging to manage the distress and regulate emotions. They may also lack the capacity to understand that what they do now can impact them in the future and end up confessing in order to put an end to an intolerable situation.
  • Desire to Please Authority Figures–Many people with I/DD may not know that the police are not always on their side. People with I/DD may have problems detecting when a police officer is being deceptive and may even be convinced that they did, indeed, commit the crime in question.
  • Lack of Understanding of Their Rights–some people with I/DD and mental illness lack the capacity to understand their constitutional rights. They may feel they don’t need an attorney because they didn’t do anything wrong. They may agree that they understand Miranda warnings in order to avoid a stressful situation.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one with an intellectual or developmental disability has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses and intellectual and developmental disabilities. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.

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