In the area of wrongful conviction law, “confessions” are viewed through two different lenses.
For instance, a confession by the actual perpetrator can, and should, lead to a finding that the convicted prisoner is “factually innocent.” For instance, twenty years after Anthony Hanemaayer, an Ontario man, pleaded guilty to sexual assault, convicted serial rapist/killer Paul Bernardo confessed to his crime. Asked why he pleaded guilty, Hanemaayer said, “I was nineteen years old. I got a sentence of two years less a day. Otherwise, it could’ve been ten. I was scared of doing Federal time, so I took the deal.”
Then there is the matter of “false confessions”—very often the lynchpin in a finding of guilt in the case of an innocent person. In their book, Actual Innocence (2003), Barry Scheck (@barryschek), Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer (@jimdwyernyt) write that, of seventy-four U.S. wrongful conviction cases reconstructed by the Innocence Project in 2000, false confessions were a factor in 22 percent.
The false confession of an unsophisticated young man with a low IQ played a major role in the wrongful convictions featured in the recent, award-winning documentary, on the West Memphis 3. The movie examines the case of three young Arkansas men who were locked up for the horrific 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys. Perhaps the most powerful piece of the prosecution’s case was a confession by one of them, describing in graphic detail how he and his two co-defendants beat, raped and mutilated the boys. The documentary, however, showed how the police, after hours of intense interrogation; heavy with leading questions, manipulated and extracted a false story from the young man.
Jurors have a difficult time believing someone would confess to a crime they did not commit.