False Confessions

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.




  1. A big point that you made here is the role that the media can play. It seems now more than ever that high profile cases are decided more in the media than they are in the courtroom. Once the media has taken its spin on the case it can be hard to determine what the real facts of the case are anymore. Even when the facts do come out the decision has already been made so what the courts say will have no effect on the decisions of the public at large.

    Going back to the rape issue, I remember recently a story about a girl who listed a rape scene in a book, a memoir. The story so convincing that it brought up investigation. Turned out she lied and the people she accused actually didn’t exist. But the uproar created by the media would have tarred and feathered the people indicted even if proven not guilty in the courts.

    Even outside of the that, we have the unfortunate deaths that made it huge into the media in the past few months. The media played them up so huge that there was no way anyone outside of those involved had a hint of what the actual story was. And then we ended up with an awful conviction by the court of public opinion.

    Mind you I am not looking to get into the darker side of politics with either of these statements. My interest here is the effect of the media. The media has replaced our courts in the determination of guilt. It is a huge factor that adds weight to the false confessions or in many cases false accusations.

    • Candy Korman

      Yes, the media has a big — sometimes outsized — role in all of this. On one side they can amplify the mood of the times and make people EXTRA crazy. On the other side, they can expose corruption and investigate cases where people are convicted on the basis of confessions that they recanted almost immediately. Conviction in the court of public opinion is the scariest aspect of the media’s role.

    • Candy Korman

      Spoken like the voice of experience.
      All to much is decided — really PRE-decided — by what we believe will happen, believe should happen, or believe will always happen.
      Here’s to shaking things up with the unpredictable, unrealistic and, occasionally, unbelievable, but true!
      (at least in fiction!)