Confessions aren’t always a reliable indicator of guilt, according to a new study that examined more than 40 cases in which suspects ‘fessed up, but were later exonerated by DNA evidence. A University of Virginia law professor pored over the cases, and was shocked at how “uncannily reliable” the confessions seemed. “I expected, and I think people intuitively think, that a false confession would look flimsy,” he tells the New York Times. Instead, they were all loaded with seemingly damning details.
But in nearly every case, interrogators fed the suspects those details, sometimes even correcting them when they botched a fact. Many of the suspects were mentally impaired or ill, while others were underage or simply caved to police pressure. None had lawyers present. “I didn’t know any way out … except to tell them what they wanted to hear,” says one such man, “and then get a lawyer to prove my innocence.” But that almost never happens. In eight of the cases, DNA evidence exonerating the defendants actually came in before trial, but juries convicted them anyway, on the strength of the confessions.