Thursday, December 21, 2006

False Confessions: Videotaped Statements The Simple Antidote

News & Commentary

The Cool Justice Report
Dec. 21, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

The prosecution introduced a confession - of sorts - in the recent Cape Cod murder trial of Christopher McCowen. McCowen was found guilty of the aggravated rape and murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington.

McCowen was interrogated by police without a lawyer present. Despite disclaiming any knowledge of Worthington or involvement in her death, he ultimately changed his story.

He did not admit to killing her. But, he did admit that he was present with a companion, Jeremy Fraser, telling police that Fraser was the one to administer the fatal stab wound.

McCowen had been confronted with the fact that his DNA was found in a semen sample taken from Worthington's body at autopsy. He claimed he engaged in consensual sex with her and that Fraser became enraged when she demanded that they leave. Although not directly implicating himself in the death, he did provide enough information to lead police to Fraser. Fraser disavowed any involvement in her death. McCowen was left with the admission that he was there when she died. From there the jury eventually concluded he was guilty of the murder.

Prior to the trial, the defense lawyer sought to have the confession excluded on the grounds that it was not voluntary and was in fact a false confession. The trial judge denied the motion, but the defense was permitted to raise the issue of "false confession" again before the jury.

In this regard, McCowen's lawyer maintained that McCowen possesses an IQ of 78, which is in the borderline mentally-challenged range. That, he said, together with claims of overbearing conduct by the interrogators, led to the confession. The defense offered testimony from two experts in the area of police interrogations, one of whom, Dr. Richard Ofshe, has authored the seminal work on the concept of false confessions.

At first glance, one would think it impossible that someone would confess to as heinous a crime as rape or murder, regardless of what pressure was brought to bear. For years, even legal scholars scoffed at the idea.

In 1992, Barry Scheck (of O.J. Simpson trial fame) and Peter Neufeld founded The Innocence Project at Benjamin Cardozo Law School in New York. Scheck and Neufeld, with an army of eager law students, employed the developing field of DNA analysis to obtain new trials and outright dismissals for individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes.

Through the 14 years of its existence, the Innocence Project has won reversals for numerous people not only wrongfully convicted but who had also confessed to involvement in the crimes that DNA evidence later irrefutably demonstrated was committed by others.

In Illinois, former Governor Ryan had declared a moratorium on executions because of the concern raised by the number of inmates on death row later found to have been wrongfully convicted. In 2003, The Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University in Chicago published its study, The Role of False Confessions
in Illinois Wrongful Murder Convictions since 1970. The authors studied 42 cases of wrongful convictions in Illinois that had occurred since 1970. Shockingly, 25 of those cases were based in whole or part on false confessions either by the defendant or a co-defendant. In a country that touts the fairest criminal justice system the idea that one could be jailed for the crime of another appears inconceivable. Even more startling is that nearly 60 percent of those cases studied in Illinois were based on false confessions.

The growing number of such cases nationwide has led to a call that all interrogations and "confessions" be videotaped. The concept protects not only the accused but also the accusers. Judges and jurors wrestling with the issue of whether a confession was coerced or otherwise false must rely on the testimony of the parties directly involved and impacted-the defendant and the interrogating police. There is no objective determining factor in such a dispute. Video evidence would settle the issue substantially.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website,
Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Thibault also serves as a consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review. Website, and Blog,

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