Thursday, May 29, 2008

Required to Confess?

Former Dallas City Councilmember James Fantroy's conviction on corruption charges and refusal to admit his guilt in the face of the verdict has Big D political observers in a tizzy. The news inspired Dallas News columnist Steve Blow to overcome his gag reflex long enough to produce this insight about the wisdom of insisting defendants confess to obtain a lower sentence ("Confession shouldn't be a condition of Fantroy's freedom," May 28:

in a larger context, I have to confess some unease about making confession a requirement in any part of our criminal justice system.

As recent events in Dallas County have made so clear, innocent people really do get convicted.

So while confession may be good for the soul, I’m not sure it should ever be a requirement for freedom.

This issue has emerged as more and more innocent people have been freed by DNA evidence. Some talked about the squeeze they felt when they came up for parole.

Prisoners are routinely asked about their crimes. There’s the distinct impression that owning up to a crime and showing some remorse will go a long way in winning parole.

“It’s a Catch-22 if you are an innocent person,” said the Rev. Jim McCloskey, executive director of Centurion Ministries, which works to free the wrongly convicted.

“It’s very common. It has happened in a number of our cases.”

It has happened to kids, too. One of the many criticisms leveled at the Texas Youth Commission was that it required young people to confess to crimes as a condition of being “resocialized” and ready for release.

“Basically, if you were wrongly convicted and sent here and then stuck to the truth, you could be punished for that. If you lied, you could move ahead,” said Youth Commission spokesman Jim Hurley.

While TYC counselors still like to see young offenders take responsibility for their actions, confession is no longer a condition of release, he said.

Blow's point is well taken, especially since so much of the investigatory process in modern US policing is about convincing defendants to confess. About half of criminal convictions result from confessions, according to a book I'm reading by Richard Leo on police interrogations. But coercing confessions has consequences; mainly the risk of punishing the innocent and freeing the guilty.

Among those who was penalized by his failure to confess to crimes he didn't commit was James Lee Woodard, who was released from prison recently after spending 27+ years behind bars. He actually "stopped attending his parole hearings because gaining his release would have meant confessing to a crime he didn't do."

Fantroy appears by all accounts but his own to be guilty as homemade sin, but quite a few people like James Lee Woodard who "looked guilty"on the front end have wound up exonerated down the line. I tend to agree with Blow that a confession shouldn't be required for a reduced sentence or parole. Fantroy's circumstances aside, occasional errors by the system are simply a fact, and when they occur it'd be unfair to further punish actually innocent people for them.

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Anonymous said...

Standard DA and Court operating procedure in Smith County, Texas 241st District Court to arrest and charge people with crime, set 400,000.00 bail and hold them until they make plea deal to get out IF they confess to whatever lesser felony charge the DA office wants. Of course they also have to swear and affirm that they are confessing of their own free will and are not being coerced at all. -Usually after being in jail a few months and standing filthy, starved, in greasy orange jumpsuit while shackled hand and foot in court.

They say this isn't a perfect system but its better than any other.

Anonymous said...

Williamson County procedure is the same as described above for Smith County.

This is not justice and it is not due process!

kbp said...

The lesser of two evils!

Anonymous said...

the parole Board doesnt hold hearings to determine release that i am aware of so i dont know what hearing he stopped attending. There is also no requirement to confess as a requirement for parole. Its all mostly determined by the parole guidelines score. Maybe counties do things differently with regards to thier own internal policies but parole shouldnt be thrown in there.

W W Woodward said...

kbp said, "The lesser of two evils!"

Yes. But it's still evil.

"Plea bargaining" - court sponsored perjury.

That's the way it works out here in Dickens County also. You might want to talk to some of the folks who appear in federal court in Lubbock as well.

Confess to something you didn't do so you can get out from under an excessive bond and get on with your life.

Problem - You'll have that conviction on your record for the rest of your life. And, the DA or the federal prosecutor and the judges, who are also in on the scam, will never lose a minute's worth of sleep.

Anonymous said...

As a worker from TYC and reading from what Mr Hurley said....That one boy who filed the suit with that Civil Rights Project guy for making him confess and refusing to release him...he won his appeal. TYC should feel really stupid because the staff and students were treating him like shit and he held his ground. I thought he was a good kid while he was at the Mart Unit and I thank God he had the balls to stand up to staff and student and not confess to simply get out of this system. His momma told us "that if he lied you would release him, but he tells the truth, holds to the truth and you beat him, lie on him and write him up. You release monsters and punish the innocent. How twisted is TYC?" I will always remember that because she was right. And now its proven. God help us. There are innocent people in jail and there are innocents being convicted daily. The system is broke and Texas simply refuses to not only apologize, not only be accountable for the lives it has ruined - it presses on in the same format. DA's withholding evidence, Judges convicting on faulty evidence, juries not being informed in truth, grand juries simply doing the DA's bidding...the system is broken and the citizens of this United States need to get a damn backbone and not take it any more. Prosecute DA's, Judges and not give a double standard because of Title. Fontroy maybe innocent, found guilty, but to publicly tell him that he has to confess to get a lower sentence is a violation of his constitutional rights and that judge should be held to the mat. Maybe he should do the month that he was trying to get Fontroy to admit to.

Anonymous said...

I have heard in a number of criminal trials which I covered, where the prosecutor's argument, during the sentencing phase, is that a harsher sentence should be imposed because the defendant "does not show any remorse for the crime for which he has been convicted". But,how can you show remorse if you were wrongfully convicted?

Nonetheless,in the case of Fantroy, I think his sentence was too lenient..and giving him an even further consideration by providing him that opportunity to admit to his crime and avoid serving any time whatever. Any average joe would get 10-20 years for that crime.

He probably has connections that assured him that he would serve his time in a comfy hospital.If he knew he would be incarcerated in the Dallas county jail he would admit to killing Jesus Christ.

If one has any medical problems such as diabetes,heart,ect don't count on getting any of your medicine in that jail. You will die in there....and it will be reported as death from natural causes.

Anonymous said...

By the way if you want to see a movie that is really disheartening on this subject on having to plead guilty when one is innocent, then locate a movie entitled, "criminal justice".