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Erin Moriarty: Could Someone Make You Confess a Crime You Didn't Commit?

48 Hours Mystery correspondent Erin Moriarty asks why would someone accept responsibility and punishment for something they didn't do.

(CBS)
Marty Tankleff in 2004. As a 17-year-old boy Tankleff pondered, during a police interrogation, whether he killed his own parents. He spent the next 17 years in jail fighting his own words.

NEW YORK (CBS) Could someone make you confess to a crime that you didn't commit? C'mon. No way. People usually lie to avoid penalties. Why would someone accept responsibility and punishment for something they didn't do?

To most of us, it is inconceivable that even the most skillful police interrogator can get innocent people to, not only confess to a terrible crime, but actually believe that they committed it. Yet, we know it happens.

One quarter of those exonerated by DNA test results actually confessed to the crime of which they were convicted. Regular viewers of "48 Hours Mystery" know about the case of Marty Tankleff.

He is the son of a wealthy New York couple who was convicted of killing his parents in 1990, after he wondered aloud to detectives if he was responsible. Tankleff was released from prison last year after new evidence surfaced pointing to a disgruntled partner of Tankleff's father and hired killers.

So what makes people admit things that are not true? Until recently, I was confident that only a certain kind of individual could be coerced.

Take a closer look at the cases of false confessions and you find that many of the "victims" have something in common. They are young (Marty Tankleff was 17), impressionable, perhaps in shock after a horrific event and/or subjected to hours and hours of questioning without sleep, food or water.

I met one man, a former alcoholic, who falsely confessed to the brutal killing of his young female neighbor. During questioning, police lied, telling him they had found his fingerprints and blood at the scene. After convincing him that he had a "dry alcoholic black-out," the man began to believe he had committed the crime, and with great remorse and anguish, confessed. Luckily, the interrogation was on tape and after listening to it, a judge threw his statements out.

Based on what I have seen and read in these cases, I believed only a small percentage of people could be made to falsely confess. That is, until I took a new look at the cases of Mike Scott and Robert Springsteen. We originally reported on the crime in a 2000 show called "Who Killed These Girls?"

(AP Photo)
High school photos of Robert Springsteen, left, and Mike Scott.

Both Scott and Springsteen were convicted of the most heinously haunting crime in the history of Austin, Texas. On Dec. 6, 1991, four young girls, ranging in age from 13 to 17, were raped, shot and killed inside a suburban yogurt shop, their bodies then set on fire. The crime went unsolved until 1999, when four young men were arrested and charged.

Two of those men, Scott and Springsteen, confessed with very specific details. With no physical evidence to tie any of the four to the murders, two of the accused were never tried for the murders, but Scott and Springsteen's confessions did them in. Both men were convicted at trial; Springsteen was even sentenced to death, a sentence that was later commuted to life in prison.

Scott and Springsteen were both in their mid-20s when they were interrogated by police. Their confessions were taped, and while the quality of the recordings is bad, there is no clear evidence of coercion. Scott's interrogation goes on for hours and he professes innocence through much of it, but when he finally admits to a robbery gone wrong, he seems credible in his details. Springsteen's statement to police appears to match some of what Scott says, although both confessions contain inaccurate facts.

The confessions were credible enough to persuade two juries that the men were telling the truth.

Now suddenly, there is new evidence in the case that raises serious questions about those confessions and whether the real killers were caught. There is new DNA evidence that Scott and Springsteen say proves what they have been claiming all along: that their confessions were coerced and that someone else killed those girls. Tests, not available in the early 90s, were taken of vaginal swabs collected at the time of the crime. The results of those tests point to an unknown male.

They do not match Scott, Springsteen or any of the four original defendants. Since Springsteen confessed that he had raped the youngest of the girls, Amy Ayers, his attorney says that the test results pointing to the unknown male are proof that Springsteen's confession was false and that he is innocent.

Not so fast, says the Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. She says that Springsteen may still have raped the young girl, but not left semen. She says the DNA results do not exonerate the men, but simply point to a fifth, yet unidentified, man at the scene. Who is right?

For reasons other than these new DNA results, the convictions of both men have been overturned and they are awaiting new trials. Now the new trials are in doubt as the District Attorney's office tries to identify the unknown male. Does the DNA belong to a fifth man who helped Scott and Springsteen commit this horrific crime, as the state contends, or are they innocent men wrongly convicted? If they are innocent, what made these seemingly competent, married men admit to a crime they didn't commit?

So far, more than 100 men, emergency personnel and acquaintances of the girls have been tested in an effort to identify the unknown man, with no luck. In the meantime, the retrials of Scott and Springsteen have been postponed indefinitely and, last month, a judge released them on their own recognizance.

The pressure on the district attorney is enormous: until she finds the unknown man, major questions remain unresolved: Have two killers been released into the community or have the killers of these little girls been out there all along? Moreover, how reliable are police confessions?

Finally, a question for all of us to consider anew: Are we much more vulnerable to coercion than any of us believe? We will have much more to report this fall on "48 Hours Mystery." Stay tuned.

Click here to learn more about the Marty Tankleff case.


Erin Moriarty is an award-winning correspondent for CBS News and has been with 48 Hours since 1990. Drawing on her training as an attorney, she has examined some of the most important issues of the day, including DNA testing in death-row cases, the abortion controversy and battered women's syndrome. She covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School shootings and the 9/11 investigation overseas. Moriarty has won nine national Emmy Awards and a 2001 Press Club Award, among others.

  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"

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