California Needs Interrogation Reform to Prevent False Confessions

This is a guest post by John F. Terzano of The Justice Project
David Allen Jones spent 12 agonizing years in a California prison for a crime he did not commit. Then DNA exonerated him.
Mr. Jones was convicted of three murders he falsely confessed to after being interrogated by a team of detectives and taken to each of the crime scenes. During the intense interrogation, Jones was prodded by detectives and corrected when he gave statements that contradicted the evidence.

Jones was a mentally retarded, part-time janitor with an IQ in the low 60’s. There was no physical evidence or witnesses linking Jones to any of the killings and he was convicted almost entirely as a result of his false confession.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jones story is not unique. False confessions have played a role in wrongful convictions in California, and in approximately 20% of wrongful convictions nationwide. (Please visit The Justice Project’s website for information on reforms that will help prevent false confessions): Also the ACLU of Northern California has an effort underway to help end wrongful convictions.)
Confessions are often viewed as the most powerful evidence at trial, and can even overcome other types of evidence that points to the defendant’s innocence. For this reason, it is essential that reforms be put in place to ensure that confessions are reliable.
Decades of psychological research have demonstrated how some traditional and aggressive interrogation techniques can lead to false confessions. These include the use of false information, lengthy interrogation sessions. When paired with certain personality characteristics, these techniques can cause a person to falsely confess.
Reforms are needed to help judges and juries accurately assess the circumstances surrounding a confession. To this end, California must mandate the full electronic recording of custodial interrogations – from the Miranda warning until the end of the interview. These reforms will also help protect police officers from false claims of coercion or abuse by providing an objective record of the facts.
It is especially important to record interrogations involving juvenile suspects and those whom authorities have reason to believe are mentally retarded or mentally ill. As demonstrated in Mr. Jones’ case, these populations are particularly vulnerable to interrogation tactics and significantly more likely to falsely confess.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice has taken a major step in the prevention of wrongful convictions by sponsoring Senate Bill 511, authored by Senator Elaine K. Alquist (D-Santa Clara). This bill addresses the problem of false confessions by requiring full electronic recording of interrogations in both juvenile and adult cases.
The bill has already passed the State Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committee, and it will soon be heading to the Assembly Floor for a final vote. Last year, in a major setback in the prevention of wrongful convictions in the state, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed an earlier version of this bill. If the new interrogation reform bill passes the Assembly, the Governor will have an opportunity to sign into law this important reform that protects suspects and protects police officers.
Along with electronic recording of interrogations, improving eyewitness identification and raising standards for the use of jailhouse informant testimony has been shown to prevent wrongful convictions. Senate Bill 756, sponsored by Senator Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles, Culver City), addresses the development of new guidelines for eyewitness identification procedures and Senate Bill 609, sponsored by Senator Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), would require corroboration for jailhouse informants.
Cases of injustice in California, such as David Allen Jones, illustrate the need for improvements within the criminal justice system. But the mistakes leading to wrongful convictions can be prevented—we hope that Legislators will support these three essential bills, and that the Governor will ultimately sign them into law.
John F. Terzano is the President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to address unfairness and inaccuracy in the criminal justice system, with a focus on the capital punishment system.
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