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A True Confession?

In criminal court, a signed confession from the accused is practically a guarantee of a guilty verdict. But in the age of DNA, we have a more reliable test of guilt.

As a result, scores of innocent people have been released from prison, including people who had actually admitted to the crime -- shaking a widely held belief that only the guilty confess.

How could someone possibly admit to a crime he did not commit? He could if he was subjected to today's highly developed interrogation techniques -- so effective that even the innocent can succumb.

If you're convinced you'd never crack, take a look at the case of Abdallah Higazy, a 30-year-old student from Cairo who came to the United States in late summer of 2001. Correspondent Morley Safer reports.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Higazy was asleep in a room that had been assigned to him at the Millennium Hilton in downtown Manhattan, right across the street from the World Trade Center.

"I'm in my bed and all of a sudden I heard a sonic boom and the hotel shaking," says Higazy, who had a scholarship to study computer engineering at Brooklyn's Polytechnic University. "The first thing that crossed my head was, 'Oh, God, please don't make it a terrorist attack.' That was the first thing that crossed my mind."

The Hilton was evacuated and he made his way out of Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, along with thousands of New Yorkers trying to escape the carnage. Months later, when he was finally told he could come to the hotel to retrieve his belongings, he was asked to verify a list of contents found in his room.

"And the second subject on the list just caught my eye: radio scanner. I said, 'Excuse me, sir. This isn't mine,'" recalls Higazy. "Three gentlemen in suits walk up to me and said, 'Excuse me, sir. My name is Agent so-and-so from the FBI. Would you mind answering a few questions?'"

The FBI agents asked Higazy about an aviation transceiver that they said was found locked in the safe of his room on top of a copy of the Koran. It was a radio that could have been used to communicate with the terrorists on the doomed aircraft.

"Just hearing that scared the living daylights out of me," says Higazy. "It could have been used … All I could say was, 'The device is not mine. I never saw it before. I don't know anything about it.' They told me, 'We're sorry, but we're putting you under arrest.'"

Higazy was arrested as a material witness for the 9/11 investigation. He was read his rights and taken to the New York headquarters of the FBI, where he was questioned. He offered to take a lie detector test. So after 10 days in solitary confinement, an FBI agent arrived and hooked him up to the polygraph.

"All I said was, 'I'm just gonna say the truth. And this device is gonna show him that I am saying the truth.' Unfortunately, the agent threatened me," says Higazy. "He said it like this: 'If you do not cooperate, the FBI will make your brother upstate live in scrutiny. And we'll make sure Egyptian security gives your family hell.' That's exactly how he said it."

The FBI would not discuss the case. An internal investigation into Higazy's allegations concluded there was no evidence the agent had acted improperly.

As the polygraph continued, Higazy says, he began to panic: "I just couldn't breathe. I could hear my heart beat in my head. I started saying, 'OK, the options are if I say I don't know anything about this device, I'm screwed and so is my family. If I say I know something about the device, it'll be I lied, I'm screwed, but at least my family will be safe.' And I said, 'OK, the device is mine.'"

The FBI had its confession, and Higazy spent three more weeks in solitary confinement. He was preparing for a court appearance with a court-appointed lawyer when he was led to an office where, to his amazement, he was told: "You could leave now."

"I said, 'I'm sorry?' He said, 'You could leave now. You were the guy with the radio?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'The real owner came and asked for the radio,'" recalls Higazy.

It turned out the radio did not belong to Higazy. It belonged to a pilot who was also staying at the hotel on Sept 11. When the pilot went to retrieve his belongings, the FBI realized they had the wrong man. A hotel security guard later admitted he lied about finding the radio in the safe in Higazy's room.

Higazy is now suing the hotel, members of its staff, and the FBI agent he says threatened him.

But how could he have confessed to something that he didn't do? "Given the choice between two evils, you will absolutely choose the lesser," says Higazy. "It was either I go to prison, or I go to prison and something happens to my family. So I chose I go to prison."

"The No. 1 reason people give false confessions is because they've been threatened in some way," says Joe Buckley, president of John E. Reid and Associates, a company that teaches interviewing and interrogation techniques to police officers and federal agents.

Buckley, who is familiar with the Higazy case, says that if the FBI agent threatened Higazy, then it was illegal: "The courts have said you cannot threaten someone's family. You cannot threaten to put their spouse in jail if you don't just tell us the truth kind of thing. Those are things the courts have said are improper."

Steven Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University, is one of the country's leading experts on false confessions. He says even some legal interrogation techniques can elicit false confessions from innocent suspects.

"You have to understand today's psychological interrogation techniques. And the kinds of pressure that can be brought on a suspect that is legal in many instances, so that it makes it rational, even for an innocent person, to confess to a crime he didn't commit … whether it's true or not," says Drizin.

That's what Jorge Hernandez says happened in his case. In July of 2002, Hernandez became a suspect in a particularly brutal assault and rape of a 94-year-old woman in Palo Alto, Calif.

Hernandez was questioned because he lived near the victim and because a ring that had once belonged to his brother was found at the scene of the crime. His brother had an alibi, so police focused on Hernandez.

When police asked him what he was doing the night of the rape, he said he couldn't remember: "They were saying May 10. I was, like, 'May 10, OK, that was months ago. I don't remember what I did on a specific day.' So I kept saying, 'I don't know. I don't know,'" recalls Hernandez.

Then, Hernandez says, police told him they found his fingerprints and other physical evidence that linked to him to the crime. He also claims that they suggested they had surveillance tape of him at the crime scene.

In a police tape, faced with all this "evidence," Hernandez says he began to question his own innocence during the interrogation: "I don't remember doing this, so it kind of seems, like, if you guys say you have my fingerprints and stuff like that. But if I did it, I really want to apologize to her."

"At that time, I was just, like, I didn't know what to think," says Hernandez, who admits he was doubting his own memory.

The police suggested to Hernandez that he might have had too much to drink that night – and that he might have blocked the assault from his memory. After hours of interrogations, Hernandez even comes to say that he might remember the apartment's sliding door: "I'm a curious guy, so I probably saw the sliding door opened or something and it attracted my attention."

With Hernandez volunteering such information, police seemed convinced they had their man. But Hernandez says the police gave him two choices: confess now and they'll try to help him out, or don't confess and face a jury trial with all the evidence piled up against him.

Towards the end of the questioning, police get a semi-confession from Hernandez: "I'm going to be a man and I want to say that I was drunk, maybe. I was drunk, and I was under the influence of alcohol, and I just don't remember doing that. I probably did it and I just don't remember the next day doing it."

In fact, as Hernandez later found out, the police lied. They did not have his fingerprints, nor did they have his DNA or the surveillance tapes they claimed implicated him in the crime. He was held in jail for three weeks until DNA testing eliminated him as the rapist. The charges were dropped and he was released.

The Palo Alto police department and the district attorney's office wouldn't comment on the ongoing investigation, except to say that no one -- including Hernandez -- had been eliminated as a suspect.

Attorney Randolph Daar is representing Hernandez in a lawsuit against the City of Palo Alto and members of its police department for conducting what he calls a coercive and unlawful interrogation.

"By telling Jorge, in essence, 'We already know what happened. We already know you did it, so you only have two choices. Choice one is you go to trial, and we'll bury you with evidence. Or choice two is you tell us the truth and we're gonna get you some help,'" says Daar.

"That is clearly illegal. That is coercion. That's what produced a false confession here. I know most people out there say, 'Gee, I wouldn't confess.' It worked with him because he believes the cops, and he believes police don't lie. So it's only the face of that naiveté and sincere belief that they could begin to get him to question himself."

But Buckley says police are allowed to lie about evidence to get at the truth: "According to the court, it's perfectly legal."

Even if it may produce a false confession?

"Most innocent people, when you tell them, they say, 'Hey, look pal. I don't care what you got. I wasn't there. I didn't do it. You ain't got no fingerprints on me. I wasn't even in the building. I had nothing to do with it,'" says Buckley. "And most innocent people throw that back in your face."

In this case, Daar says, it was the combination of lies and what he says were unlawful offers to help Hernandez if he confessed that ultimately elicited the false confession.

"Half of it's [the interrogation is] recorded and half of it's not recorded. We only know for certain, besides Jorge's testimony about the lies and the coercion, because they are then repeated during the recorded part of the interrogation," says Daar.

Professor Drizin wants to see mandatory videotaping of all interrogations. But critics argue that it could interfere with an investigation, and that suspects might be less willing to confess with a camera in the room.

"I think it's the most important single reform in the criminal justice system," says Drizen. "It's [Resistance] starting to soften a little bit, because of all the false confessions that are surfacing. But there's terrific resistance."

"Here we have a videotaped interrogation and still come up with a kind of false confession," says Safer to Daar.

"But Jorge, at least if he had to face a jury some day on this terrible charge, would at least have a pictorial record of what happened. They're being coercive. They're lying," says Daar.

"I believe ordinary citizens, when looking at those kind of tactics in that context, are gonna reject the confession. They are not nearly as accurate as we are to believe. And thank God, the DNA's come along and at least opened our eyes and exploded these myths."

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