A real whodunnit: The evolving science of false confessions

Anne Schindler investigates. 3/20/2017

The "good cop/bad cop” drill is familiar to any fan of police procedurals.

But they aren’t just fictional TV characters. They’re part of an interrogation technique created in the 1940s by a former Chicago police detective John Reid. The nine-step Reid Technique relies on other easily recognizable law enforcement tropes: tiny interrogation rooms, combative questioning, and a refusal to accept – or even listen to -- pleas of innocence.

The technique was once the gold standard of police interrogations, but that’s changing. One of the largest police consulting firms in the world announced last week that it will no longer teach the Reid method, saying it elicits unreliable testimony and false confessions.

In a video statement on its website, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates says it’s tossing the technique due to the “inherent risks and pitfalls of using a confrontational, emotional approach” to interviews. The company’s Director of Investigations Dave Thompson observes the technique “can lead to horrendous miscarriages of justice.”

Shane Sturman, company president and CEO, told First Coast News response to the change "has been very positive." 

"You get better information" with less confrontational tactics, he said.

Jacksonville criminal defense attorney Ann Finnell agrees. “Anything that’s designed to get a confession is the wrong approach,” she says. “What they should be designed to do is get to the truth.”

According to national data by the Innocence Project, about a third of all DNA-based exonerations since 1989 involved false confessions. Research has found everything from interrogation fatigue to sleep deprivation can contribute. But confessions are incredibly persuasive, and juries are inclined to give them great weight.

“Think about how a jury perceives a confession,” Finnell says. “It may be better than DNA. It’s perhaps the most damning evidence against an individual there can be.”

John Reid & Associates defends the technique, saying unreliable confessions aren’t the fault of the technique, but unskilled practitioners. 

But the program remains widely taught, including a three-day interrogation seminar in Jacksonville April 3-6.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Lauri-Ellen Smith says Reid is not currently taught to Jacksonville officers.

“I have confirmed that we do not utilize this program in our training,” she said in an email.

Former JSO homicide detective RV Nelson says Reid “was very popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” He saw use of the technique diminish over in his 30 years with JSO. “Some people think it's the best thing around, some cringe when you mention it,” he says.

Though he was regarded as one of the department's most skilled interrogators, he chose not to use the Reid method. “If it is one that causes you to be in someone’s face and be confrontational … it does more than harm than good,” he says.

Finnell routinely asks in deposition whether detectives have trained in Reid, and says they almost always say yes. “It’s the most pervasive technique that’s used.”

She believes the focus on confessions skews the outcome. "The interrogation technique is designed to get a confession, whether you’re guilty or not," she says. "The problem you’re running into is, you’re not only going to get confessions from those people, you’re going to get confessions from people who didn't do anything wrong. For instance: Brenton Butler."

The Butler case is among the most troubling in city history. Wrongfully accused, a 15-year-old confessed to the brutal murder of an elderly Georgia tourist. The teen was eventually acquitted, after spending 6-and-a-half months in jail. The sheriff and state attorney even publicly apologized. But the case showed the power of a coerced confession.

It also changed policing in Jacksonville. JSO began videotaping confessions as a direct result of the Butler case.

Still, a confession – regardless of how it was obtained – remains the strongest tool against any defendant. 

“Unless I can prove that confession was false or that those techniques were over the top, I’m sunk in terms of defending that person. If a jury believes it, that person is going to jail," says Finnell.

© 2017 WTLV-TV


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment
More Stories