For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of false confessions. When I first looked into this, I was dead certain that I would never, under any circumstances, confess to a crime I had not committed. But the more time I spent with this odd, and unfortunate, phenomenon, the less certain I grew.
False confessions can be obtained by law enforcement professionals applying pressure to vulnerable individuals or by accepting false confessions offered by delusional people bent on attracting attention. Police in the midst of a high profile investigation must find those “attention seekers” to be frustrating distractions. No one wants to waste time following up on a fake confession.
But the false confessions elicited with the best of intentions are the “killers” in the mix. Sometimes these are confessions are made by people worn down by hours of questioning or simply worn out by life in general. It’s a sad truth.
One of the most famous false confession cases in New York is the Central Park Jogger Case. Back in 1989, a woman was raped and brutally beaten while jogging in Central Park. She was an investment banker who jogged after work in the park. She was unable to identify her attacker(s) and somehow, I’m not sure how, it was determined that she’d been the victim of a group of teenaged boys “wilding” in the park like a pack of wolves. This occurred at a time when New York was a “dangerous” city and the idea of teens acting like animals in the park was credible.
The fact that a fearful city THOUGHT it was possible, didn’t mean it was factual. Five teenaged boys, aged 14 to 16, were arrested and the police obtained confessions after long and torturous hours of questioning that included all sorts of lies and deceptions that were legal but more appropriate for interrogations with hardened criminals. Although the five all said that their incriminating statements had been coerced, the confessions were deemed admissible and they were convicted in 1990.
A few years later, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigated the case, discovered DNA evidence that the jogger was raped and beaten by a single assailant, a man already convicted of rape and murder, who confessed to the crime. But the “wheels of justice move slowly.” Eventually, the city settled the wrongful conviction suit for $1million per year of imprisonment. (One of the men had served 13 years!) Documentary movies, books, countless articles later and it’s still hard to figure out how this all came about.
Maybe the heart of this is the match of the false story — the narrative created by the police desperate for a satisfying resolution to a terrible criminal event — and the tenor of the time? The police, the prosecutors, the press and the public were complicit. They wanted to believe the “wilding wolf pack story” because it fit into the fear-driven mentality of the city in the 1970s & early 1980s. Today, that kind of story would likely ring false.
A note to mystery fans, the special prosecutor on this case went on to become a popular crime novelist. The Central Park Jogger Case was not her only high-profile prosecution, but in the years since the false confessions and wrongful conviction has come to light, I’ve often wondered where her literary career would have been without the boost provided by the false confessions that compelled the successful prosecution of five young men who made coerced false confessions.