Wrongful Convictions Following Shocking False Confessions

Gavel depicting false confessions

False confessions are more common than you think.

Consider the case of Jessie Misskelley Jr. Why would he confess to helping two other teenagers torture, mutilate, and kill three innocent 8-year-old boys if he didn’t do it?

For something so horrific and so likely to ruin the rest of your life, why would you ever willingly say you had helped do such a crime if, in fact, you didn’t do it?

This is the stumbling block so many Americans – actually so many people period – can’t get past. If someone confesses, he or she has to be guilty, right?

Let me be very clear about this. Jessie Misskelley didn’t just narrate the same version of events once. He did it several times to several people following questioning and arrest for the crime.

That is what makes this so confusing. It is what made it impossible for a jury not to convict him. It is what made it impossible for one juror in the separate trial held for Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols to act in a lawful manner.

Jessie’s statement was inadmissible in the Baldwin/Echols trial because he refused to testify against his friends. Even so, there is evidence that the man who eventually became jury foreman had heard the confession. He was convinced by it and became determined to get the other two convicted.

The Psychological Weight of False Confessions

The confession to a brutal crime carries such psychological weight with juries and other criminal justice professionals because most of them – most of us – can’t imagine confessing to a brutal crime we didn’t commit.

However, the Innocence Project says differently. More than 1 out of 4 of those exonerated by DNA evidence had made a false confession or incriminating statements. According to this paper,

In an examination of 38 false confessions derived from the Innocence Project’s DNA exoneration case files, Garrett (2010) found that 36 contained accurate crime details. In fact, most contained nonpublic information that became a centerpiece of their prosecution—information, according to detectives who testified, that only the perpetrator could have known…

To further complicate matters, many false confessions contain vivid details of what the suspect allegedly did, how, why, and with what effects.

Clearly, we have here a phenomenon that is baffling to those working in law enforcement. It sounds like a real confession.


Reasons for False Confessions

Some reasons for shocking false confessions are:

  • Duress
  • Coercion
  • Intoxication
  • Diminished capacity
  • Mental impairment
  • Ignorance of the law
  • Fear of violence
  • The actual infliction of harm
  • The threat of a harsh sentence and misunderstanding of the situation.

In addition, confessions from juveniles are often unreliable as children can be easy to manipulate and aren’t always fully aware of their situation. Those with mental disabilities more often falsely confess in order to agree with authority figures. Law enforcement interrogators aren’t trained to question suspects with disabilities.

Jessie Misskelley’s Trial

Defense attorneys for Jessie Misskelley argued at the time of his trial that his IQ level meant that he was very nearly mentally retarded. In addition to this, he was questioned for 12 hours. However, only 45 minutes of this time was recorded on video.

Even so, within the video portion of the confession, Jessie wasn’t giving the correct time of day the crime occurred and interrogators – either purposely or without realizing it. This led him to eventually give police the correct details.

This leads to the next point – investigators can inadvertently relay details of a crime scene or information about how the crime occurred to a suspect during questioning. In turn, this allows the suspect to repeat back the details investigators assume they could only have known had they committed the crime.

But in fact, the suspect has gotten details from investigators themselves, from crime scene photos they’ve been made to look at or from being taken to visit a crime scene.

Once Jessie believed it was in his best interest to confess to the crime it became in his best interest to get all the details right and to give them a story they could believe. He thought he would be able to confess and his innocence would be proven later. Or he thought that if he confessed he would finally be allowed to go home and be with his dad.

And the rest is history.


Changes need to be made that do away with false confessions. The law in Wisconsin, for instance, making it mandatory to record the entire interview with juveniles was what lead to the video of the false confession made by Brendan Dassey. This story was shown in the Netflix series “Making A Murderer.”

All states need to have a law which mandates the videotaping of entire police interviews. It is hard to believe that this isn’t the law.

Another takeaway is that false confessions are real. Adults in their right minds have confessed to crimes they didn’t commit and you could too.

Do not assume, if you are being interviewed by police, that the evidence will show your innocence.

If you are facing charges for a crime you did not commit, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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