In response, Rage poses a question discussed on Grits before, and which I think must bewilder every right thinking person who considers the issue of false confessions:
I just don't understand how someone not guilty of murder could confess to it. Or why he was sent to death row despite a confession--usually that gets you a plea. I can see confessing to theft to get out of jail time, but murder? Of killing a small, frail, woman?The idea of confessing to such a monstrous act does seem inexplicable. Yet we see false confessions in even the most heinous of crimes.
For example, I couldn't imagine an innocent person admitting to a worse crime than Austin's Yogurt Shop murders, where four teenage girls were raped and murdered and the building torched to destroy the evidence. But some 50 different people confessed to that high-profile atrocity, most of whom police could easily show had nothing to do with the offense.
The reasons vary. Some were mentally ill. Some were weak minded people trying to please authority. And some of them succumbed to harsh or deceptive interrogation techniques, particularly by later-defrocked homicide detective Hector Polanco, who has a history of securing false confessions.
Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott confessed to the Yogurt Shop murders after long, grueling interrogation sessions. (For Michael Scott, it went on 20 straight hours). Those confessions led to their later-overturned convictions after they recanted and the courts wouldn't let the prosecution use their statements against one another. No other evidence implicated the pair.
In the Yogurt Shop case, recently tested DNA ultimately disproved the prosecution's original, convicting theory, and, just as with Raby, points to some heretofore unidentified perpetrator. You could say of the Yogurt Shop defendants, just as Rage said of Raby's case:
It will be interesting to see how the state explains the new DNA results and if their theory at trial was that he acted alone this may be just enough evidence for a new trial--or at least it would be if the CCA didn't allow new theories to be brought up on appeal, which they do in cases like this.A new theory that explained why Raby's DNA wasn't found on the victim's defensive wounds would likely require the existence of an accomplice, which would contradict the eyewitness who saw Raby, alone, jump a fence (from across a yard, at night) around the time of the crime. In the Yogurt Shop case, I'm not sure what new theory (besides actual innocence) explains why the DNA of a confessed rapist wouldn't match the crime scene rape kit.
These are not isolated incidents. Yet another recent capital murder case, this one a quadruple murder in Collin County, endured an especially tortured investigation process thanks to false confessions by three different, unrelated suspects, none of whom authorities now believe were actually involved in the crime. (They're still in trial; one hopes, now, they've finally got the right guy.)
Like Rage, I think most of us can only shake our heads and admit we "don't understand how someone not guilty of murder could confess to it," though academic research is beginning to provide compelling explanations.
False confessions challenge our core assumptions. When Rage writes, "I can see confessing to theft to get out of jail time, but murder?," he's expressing what's probably most people's common sense reaction.
But in fact, when you look at the likely false confessions in the high profile cases discussed above, it almost seems they're more likely in a heinous case than in a petty theft. After all, nobody's going to spend 20 hours interrogating a shoplifter, so they might never be subjected to the level of coercion and manipulation that cause a murder suspect to succumb.
University of San Francisco law prof Richard Leo suggests recording interrogations would at least provide a record to evaluate later whether a confession was likely false, and certainly in Raby's case it would be nice to go back now - given the conflicting evidence - and hear what he actually told investigators when he confessed, and under what circumstances.