Why do people falsely confess to crimes?

CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen weighs in on this week's 60 Minutes report "The False Confession Capital"

CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen weighs in on this week's 60 Minutes report "The False Confession Capital."

Our 60 Minutes piece this Sunday on false confessions and the Chicago Police Department offers telling detail about two cases in which the truth became another victim of crime and criminal justice. I was struck by many parts of the sad stories that correspondent Byron Pitts -- and producers Ira Rosen, Gabrielle Schonder and Matthew Danowski -- told, but kept coming back to the one question everyone asks when they hear about these sorts of cases: Why do people falsely confess to crimes they didn't commit?

One of these people, Terrill Swift, tells Bryon: "I thought I was going home," after the journalist asks why Swift had signed a false confession in a 1991 rape and murder case. "Come on now," Byron pushes back. "You had to know if you admitted to raping and killing a woman, you weren't going home to mama." To which Swift -- who was incarcerated for 15 years for crimes there is no evidence he committed -- answers: "I had no understanding of that, none."

I also have no understanding of that. So I asked Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalist who has covered crime and justice for decades, to help explain why so many people, especially so many teenagers, sign their lives away. "Put a kid in a locked room for 10-20 hours and they want their mama and will say just about anything to get out of there," Possley says. "But instead of going home, they go straight to jail."

Possley now works with the National Registry of Exonerations, which serves as a national repository for information about exonnerations like the ones Byron highlighted on 60 Minutes. Possley has seen and reported on a lot of these sorts of cases, both in Chicago and elsewhere around the country. "People confess to crimes they don't commit because they fear the death penalty, because they are mentally ill or they are intellectually handicapped," Possley told me. "They confess because police are smarter and forceful and believe they are extracting the truth, even if the facts belie the confession."

"Why [innocent people confess] is a hard question to talk about broadly because circumstances differ," Possley says. "We found a case where a young fellow -- probably older than a juvenile, but still in his teens -- who said he just got tired and figured that he would say what they wanted him to say and when he got to court, he would tell the truth (that he didn't do it) and the judge would let him go. Wrong."

Then there was the case, Possley recounts, of "14-year-old Calvin Ollins," who "signed a confession and told me that he thought he was signing a witness statement and they would let him go. Wrong. Daniel Taylor (still locked up with a life sentence) said he just got tired and went along with what the cops said. He was in jail at the time of the crime (which was true) and thought that would be enough (it wasn't)."

More from Possley: "We found police got a confession from a 15-year-old to stabbing a woman to death even though the autopsy showed no stab wounds. Another teenager confessed on videotape (!) to killing his mother, and DNA tests later showed it was someone else."

Not all these cases are out of Chicago, of course, and not every false confession case involves a young person. But the growing awareness of the problem caused by these cases -- the wrongful imprisonment, the fact that the real killer goes free, etc -- is having a national impact on the criminal justice system.

Indeed, one person who very likely understands with great clarity the nature of these false confession cases is none other than Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the majority opinion in Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 case that outlawed capital punishment for juvenile offenders--that is, for young men and women who murdered before they turned 18. Justice Kennedy offered "three general differences between juveniles under 18 and adults" to justify a national ban on capital punishment for young murderers. One such difference?

"[J]uveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure," Justice Kennedy wrote. "This is explained in part by the prevailing circumstance that juveniles have less control, or less experience with control, over their own environment (citations omitted)."

All three categories, the Justice concluded, justified the recognition that juveniles have a "diminished culpability" when it comes to determining the punishment for their crimes.

If the law recognizes that young offenders can have diminished culpability around the time they commit murder, it's hard not to see how the law would recognize, too, that young suspects -- like the ones Byron highlights in his 60 Minutes report -- have diminished culpability at the time they are pressed to sign confessions. That is just another difficult question that people like Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez will have to answer as her office tries to justify the conduct of police and prosecutors in these false confession cases.

  • Andrew Cohen

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