“People don’t ever want to believe that someone would confess to something they didn’t do. Well, the real problem with that is, people confess to something they didn’t do all the time.” —Mark Satawa, Appellate Attorney, The Confession Tapes.
Decades of crime-dramas have taught audiences that a confession means case closed. After all, why would someone confess to something they didn’t do? There are plenty of reasons actually. Kelly Loudenberg’s The Confession Tapes shows audiences how this happens. With season two of this documentary series now on Netflix, we looked for The Confession Tapes’ lessons on what everyone should know about false confessions.
The police may not tell you that you’re a suspect.
Several episodes over the course of two seasons reveal this. Someone dies, by apparent homicide, possible suicide, or likely accident. Their loved ones are called in, a nephew, their mother, their father or fiancé. The police say they just want some information. And maybe they do. But be aware that the first suspect in the death of a child will be their parents. The first suspect in the death of a married person will be their spouse. The first suspect in the death of a wealthy person may be the “black sheep” in the family. If that’s you, you’re under suspicion.
“If you’re innocent, get an attorney. Don’t speak.”
This one comes straight from the lips of Karen Boes, who thought she was going to the police station to help the police figure out who set the house fire that killed her daughter. A lot of the victims of coerced confessions note they didn’t think to call a lawyer because they hadn’t done anything wrong. They believed the system and the evidence would bear that out. But after 6 to 10 to 18 hours of interrogation, they gave “evidence” in the form of a false confession. In one case, a suspect repeatedly requested an attorney and was denied. This eventually became the grounds for his appeal. However, if he had stopped speaking altogether when the cops pressed on with questions, he may not have needed one.
If you have not been arrested, the police cannot keep you in the interrogation room. You can leave at any time.
Some subjects of The Confession Tapes didn’t know that. Some didn’t realize how many hours had gone by in the windowless room without a clock where they were kept in isolation, under surveillance, or interrogation. So they sat voluntarily for hours, growing more tired, harried, and pliable.
The police are not your friends or your therapist. No matter what they say.
In maybe the most disturbing episode of season two, a Latvian immigrant who witnessed her fiancé drown in a kayaking accident is told by a soft-spoken cop that talking to him was “therapy.” Convicted “kayak killer” Angelika Grawald recalled, “I couldn’t talk to anybody else about it … When he offered, when he said the word ‘therapy,’ I thought this is it. Maybe I could open up.” From this, she revealed that her fiancé was abusive. Then, after hours and hours of this so-called “therapy,” she admitted, “I wanted him dead. And now he’s gone. And I’m OK with that.” This so-called confession made national headlines and secured her jail time for a crime that a kayaking expert deemed preposterous.
The police can lie to you.
Over the course of this series, cops have lied about security footage, claiming it placed a suspect at the scene of the crime. They lied to a suspect saying there was gasoline found on her clothing and her fingerprints on a gas can that proved she was responsible for the fire that killed her daughter. None of this was true. But they presented this as fact, then demanded the harried suspect—who is often deep in trauma, grief, and/or lack of sleep—explain how this could be true.
False confessions begin with admitting something small.
You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’ve been in this room for hours, being asked the same questions again and again. Then they offer you a way out. Just admit you feel bad your child is dead. Just admit that it was an accident. Just admit part of you is glad your fiancé is gone. Maybe you had a dream about the crime. Maybe your subconscious knows something. Again and again, in these blurry tapes, you see slumped, exhausted people give in to a little thing like this with a “sure” or “right.” But this won’t stop the interrogation. It’ll just heat it up.
If the police are giving you leading questions, DEMAND A LAWYER.
Over and over in these tapes, you see the cops asking leading questions meant to give the outline to a confession. Instead of asking the suspect an open question like “Was anyone with you?” They ask, “Someone was with you, right?” This grooms the answers to fit their evidence. And even then, a lot of this manufactured confession won’t fit the evidence. However, the faint whisper of “I wanted him to be gone” can be enough for a conviction.
The takeaway from The Confession Tapes is not that cops are out to get collars at any cost. Each episode endeavors to interview the interrogators just as it does the convicted. (Some choose not to speak with Loudenberg and her team.) In most of these incidents, the cops see the conviction as proof they were right in their suspicions. And again, in a lot of these cases, it makes sense to look first to the lover or the parent or the “black sheep” nephew. But rather than considering all the evidence, these officers got locked into confirmation bias, looking only at the evidence that supported their hunch. It’s not malicious; it’s a painfully human thing to do. Just as wanting to appease authority is very human, so maybe you say something you think the officers want to hear.
That is the trouble with our justice system. For all our high ideals, it will falter under human fallibility. Which is why it’s important you know your rights. Chief amongst them: The police can’t keep you unless you are under arrest. And once you realize you’re being interrogated, demand a lawyer and don’t say another word until you get one.
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