States Are Finally Starting To Rein in Deceptive Police Interrogation Techniques That Lead to False Confessions
Last month, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to ban police from lying to minors during interrogations. Oregon followed suit shortly after, and similar legislation has been introduced over the past several legislative sessions in New York.
The new laws and bills are the result of years of mounting evidence and DNA exonerations showing that minors and even adults can be pressured by police into falsely confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.
Specifically, Illinois’ law makes confessions by minors obtained through knowing deception about evidence or leniency inadmissible in court. As states begin to finally reckon with the phenomenon of false confessions, there are plenty of cases that show the disastrous consequences of using deception and other ploys to squeeze confessions out of people.
Take the case of Lawrence Montoya. In 2000, Denver police officers took Montoya, then 14 years old, and his mother into a small interrogation room to question him about the death of Emily Johnson, a 29-year-old schoolteacher who had been found fatally injured in her backyard in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day.
Later that day, Montoya hopped in a car with his cousin and some other teens he didn’t know to go joyriding. It was Johnson’s stolen Lexus. Police later found the Lexus in a ditch, and eventually got an anonymous tip about the driver, who’d been running his mouth about stealing it. The driver gave up the names of all the other passengers, including Montoya’s.
In the interrogation room, Montoya admitted to the detectives that he’d taken a ride in the car, but over the course of the next two hours, he denied ever being at the house 65 times. Eventually the detectives got Montoya’s mother to leave, giving them the opportunity to lean on Montoya harder.
“I wasn’t at that lady’s house, bro,” he insisted at one point, by then crying.
“Lorenzo, your footprint is in that blood,” one detective responded. (Montoya now goes by Lawrence.)
“Who kicked her in the head first, Nick or J.R.?” the other detective cut in.
The officers told him there was a small mountain of evidence against him.
“I tell you Lorenzo, if you were there, you better give it up. We’ve got fingerprints, we’ve got blood prints, we’ve got saliva prints,” one said. “We’ve got everything.”
And: “You don’t have a fuckin’ clue what we can prove. Your ass is hanging out big time.”
Montoya sobbed as the detectives continued to yell and pile questions on him. They were the kind of trick questions meant to get you in trouble, such as, “Was she dead when you left her?”
The boy only had one real escape hatch: keep his mouth shut. But after being worn down by hours of threats, suggestions of leniency, and lies about damning physical evidence, even innocent adults will start to rationalize confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Maybe the cops really will let you go home if you just give them what they want. Surely it will all get sorted out later, when the police realize they have the wrong person.
“Unfortunately what we know is that it rarely does get sorted out later,” says Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to overturn wrongful convictions. “In fact, even in the face of exculpatory DNA evidence, fact-finders often will trump that evidence with confession evidence. In other words, they will believe the confession over the biological evidence that points elsewhere.”
According to the Innocence Project, nearly 30 percent of exonerations involve false confessions, a number that would have been dismissed as absurd and unthinkable before the advent of DNA testing.
And so, after a long pause, Montoya said, “Was I outside the house? Yes.”
One of the detectives leaned in and softened his voice, no longer yelling or threatening. “Lorenzo, you’re this close to taking a big load off your shoulders,” he said. “An unbelievable load off your shoulders. So just tell us about it. It’s a simple thing.”
Using the facts that the police officers had already revealed or prodded him toward—making sure to correct himself when detectives indicated he got basic facts about the murder wrong—the 14-year-old spun a flimsy story for them. And with that simple thing, Montoya talked his way into a life sentence.
There was no evidence agains
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