The victim was a taxi driver, a 45-year-old father of two. The Nassau County police proudly announced the arrest of Robert Moore, who had confessed to being with two acquaintances as they robbed and killed the cabby. Prosecutors said they might seek the death penalty.
Three weeks later, the prosecutors sheepishly revealed they had caught the real killers, who produced the murder weapon and said they had never heard of a Robert Moore.
His confession, it turned out, had been utterly false.
During a November deposition for his federal civil rights lawsuit over the 1995 episode on Long Island, Moore said he had falsely confessed only because investigators grilled him for 22 hours, threatened him with the death penalty and even brought in a cousin to urge him to come clean. He had been tired, lonely and scared. "I wanted to go home," he said.
In the U.S. Supreme Court's Miranda decision in 1966, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote about police interrogation techniques of such compelling power that they could produce untrustworthy confessions. To alert suspects that they had the right to stop the questioning, the court created the famous warnings.
But after three decades of rulings that have undercut Miranda's reach, and the increasingly savvy tactics of investigators, the warnings have become an easily slipped latch to the interrogation room, with the vast majority of suspects waiving their rights. Once a suspect voluntarily enters that room, courts permit interrogators to use tricks, deceptions and lies -- anything short of threats of violence or promises of lenience -- to extract confessions.
Thousands of guilty criminals have been caught in this fashion. But in a number of cases, the incredible occurs: the police extract a confession from an innocent person.
Determining that a confession is false is a risky, arduous and often fruitless quest. But in recent years, more confessions have been successfully contested because of modern forensic tools like DNA testing, a burgeoning social science of analyzing confessions for their truthfulness, and the increased skepticism of juries about police conduct.
Although the number of false confessions is in dispute, their prevalence is shaking the confidence of both prosecutors and juries in the reliability of confessions, which have long been the crown jewel of criminal prosecutions.
In an attempt to restore the credibility of the confession -- and of the police themselves -- at least 2,400 sheriff's and police departments around the country are audiotaping and even videotaping not just confessions, but often interrogations as well, according to a federal Department of Justice study.
And the practice is growing. William Geller, a police consultant who conducted that 1992 study, said that law enforcement officials were realizing that "one simple use of technology served the disparate interests of efficiency, effectiveness and legitimacy."
On the East Coast, particularly in the New York region, videotaping of interrogations is rare, because prosecutors fear it will make detectives as well as suspects self-conscious and give defense lawyers more targets to attack.
But others have found it useful. "It will shore up our case at trial: if there is any doubt about an investigator's ethics, we can say, 'Hey, let's look at the videotape,' " said T. Brett Swab, a former prosecutor in Tulsa, Okla., where interrogations of suspects in violent crimes have been recorded since the mid-1980s. "It adds to our credibility."
Some recent trials show that juries are less likely to be convinced by cases that rely heavily on confessions. In early 1997 on Long Island, Nassau County jurors acquitted a man who had confessed to two murders, after he testified that the police had physically and psychologically abused him. Detectives denied the allegations.
And in September, Suffolk County jurors acquitted Gairy Chang of the first-degree murder of two drug dealers even though he had signed a six-page confession; he testified that the police had interrogated him, naked and handcuffed, and squeezed his testicles. James Catterson Jr., the Suffolk County district attorney, said Chang had lied on the stand.
The Confession: He Said What They Wanted to Hear
Arcadia, Fla., is so small that when police officers were looking for the killer of a local shop owner, a woman suggested they question that stranger riding a bicycle around town. And because the officers mistakenly assumed he was the same fellow she said she had seen outside the shop right after the murder, they swooped down on Jerry Lee Louis.
It was about 4:30 on a July afternoon in 1992 when the police told Louis that witnesses had identified him. How could that be, he asked. Louis told the police he had been at his girlfriend's house, fixing his bicycle.
Louis's girlfriend confirmed his story, but the skeptical sergeant did not tell interrogators, who assumed his alibi was false.
Through the night, seven officers handled the questioning, according to interviews with lawyers in the case and a judge's written decision. Louis kept protesting his innocence. No way, they told him: They had also found his fingerprints and hair at the scene.
They were lying, a common -- and legal -- tactic.
Thousands of accurate confessions have been produced under such circumstances. But these same elements -- a high-profile crime, the absence of hard evidence, a long session of psychologically forceful questioning -- can also lead to a different outcome.
Louis agreed to a polygraph test. The results were inconclusive, but the officers told him he had failed. Help us out, they said: Can you explain all this evidence?
Using what training manuals refer to as "minimization strategy," they said the victim had died of a heart attack. You probably meant only to rob him, and not kill him, right?
Louis had a criminal record, had served time in a juvenile prison, and now exhausted and frightened. What if he had gone to the store, he offered, according to court testimony, and found the owner tied up? OK, an officer would counter, then why were your fingerprints on the body?
By 1:15 in the morning, after insisting on his innocence for nearly nine hours, Louis sat down for an audiotaped confession. As he would later tell his lawyer, Tobey Hockett, Louis had given up hope that telling the truth would earn him back his freedom. Broken in spirit, he thought that if he just told them what they wanted to hear, he could go home.
He made two confessions, both wildly at odds with the crime scene and witness reports.
That was not for lack of trying by the officers.
Officer: "OK, think of him laying there on the floor. What -- what is underneath him? Is there tile, carpet or something else? Think about it. Close your eyes. I've got mine closed. There was something under him. I remember it."
Louis: "Wasn't paying attention. I was scared."
Officer: "Was it like a blanket underneath that you remember or a ... a tarpaulin or something like that?"
Last March, after Louis had spent four and a half years in the DeSoto County Jail waiting trial on murder charges, a judge, ruling that the police might well have suggested details to Louis, threw out the state's only evidence -- the confession. Louis was conditionally released.
"Suppressing a confession based on perceived procedural violations by law enforcement is outrageous," said the prosecutor, John Collins Jr., who maintains that Louis knew details only the killer could have known.
But last month, an appellate court agreed that the confession had to be suppressed.
The Psychology : Some Are Prone to Confess Falsely
Psychologists have found that a few personality types are more likely to make false confessions. Some unstable people are drawn to the lurid glamour of notorious cases: When Charles Lindbergh's son was kidnapped, at least 200 people claimed responsibility.
The police speculate that Glenville Smith, a Queens, N.Y. man who confessed to the rape and murder of his landlady's missing daughter in January, was fascinated by law enforcement. He claimed he was a security guard, and led New York officers to 13 locations where the body might be buried. Then the teen-ager showed up, very much alive.
"The detectives were very anxious to find the body," said Gregory Lasak, the executive assistant to the Queens district attorney. "They had questions about his credibility, but he also had the opportunity and he was confessing, and it would have been foolhardy to let him go."
On rare occasions, a suspect may incriminate himself to protect the real offender. Other suspects say they committed one crime, hoping to draw the investigators' attention away from another.
In January, Manhattan prosecutors acknowledged that a four-year-old confession in a murder case was flawed. During questioning in 1993 for a Central Park robbery, Anthony Moore, a career criminal, wondered if he could avoid prison if he offered details about the recent shooting death of a retired police sergeant. He eventually incriminated himself and a second man.
Moore was convicted of murder, and the man he named as the gunman was charged with murder. But last winter, prosecutors received an informant's letter saying that neither man was involved in the retired sergeant's death; the confession may have been false. They have dropped charges against the second man and have reopened Moore's case.
Many suspects are mentally retarded, delusional or otherwise highly susceptible to suggestion. During an 8 1/2 hour interrogation in 1987, Robert Lee Miller Jr., a vagrant, told Oklahoma City detectives he had had a dream vision about the murders and rapes of two elderly women. His statement had 112 inconsistencies, his lawyers said; he had earlier told investigators that he was the Lone Ranger and an Indian warrior and that his family had visionary powers.
Miller was convicted and sentenced to death. In 1995, DNA testing excluded him and identified a convicted rapist, who has been charged with the crimes. Miller was finally released in January.
The case still rankles prosecutors. The DNA results "never changed our opinion; it just means he got away with it," insisted Ray Elliott, a senior Oklahoma City prosecutor, who believes that the men committed the crimes together. "But knowing and proving it are two different things."
Even seemingly normal suspects are vulnerable. Welsh White, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has written that an innocent suspect who believes that the police have incontrovertible evidence and that a confession will bring him lenience "could rationally conclude that confessing is in his best interest."
The Tactics: Find a Weak Spot; Blame the Victim
Many police departments use a manual called Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which advises detectives to create an atmosphere in which the suspect will feel it is better to confess than to sustain the anxiety of lying. They learn a nine-step method to foster that anxiety.
It offers tips, for example, on how to open questioning: "The interrogator, while still standing in front of the seated suspect and using the case folder as a prop, should state clearly and briefly something along the following lines: 'You're Joe Burns? I'm here to talk to you about the break-in at Jason's Jewelry Store last week.' As that comment is being made, the interrogator should finger through the case folder to create the impression that it contains material of an incriminating nature about the subject."
The ability to read body language is critical. Marvin Miller, an Alexandria, Va., defense lawyer who studies interrogation techniques, says that detectives are sometimes taught to face a suspect with no furniture between them for a better view of tapping feet, to see whether a topic prompts a suspect's pupils to dilate abruptly, to distinguish between a suspect who gazes upward (remembering something) and one who looks away evasively.
Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley who is an authority on confessions, said that detectives seek the suspect's weak spot. In the case of Robert Moore, the man who confessed falsely to the murder of a Long Island cabdriver, the police not only brought in his cousin to induce him to confess, Moore later recounted in court papers, but a detective who had investigated the homicide of Moore's mother, years earlier.
Another tactic singled out by Ofshe: blame the victim. A Pasco County, Fla., interrogator told a suspect: "I think you killed your wife. I think you got into an argument, I think she hit you. She's got a temper."
Other examples reveal the detectives' creative flair. Recently, a former New York City sex crimes detective, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled: "We had a small fax machine and the suspect was told it was a new kind of lie detector that didn't have to be hooked up. And that whenever he told a lie it would beep.
"So he would make a statement like, 'I was with my girlfriend,' and we would make the thing beep without him seeing. We got a pretty good admission from him."
Detectives, writes Ofshe, have warned a gullible suspect that they use "laser technology," just like in "Star Wars" -- did you know it can lift fingerprints off corpses? And detectives in Richmond, Calif., told a suspect he had been identified by the department's very own Neutron Proton Negligence Intelligence Test.
One trick finally spurred a court to suppress a confession. Florida police not only told a suspect that DNA had tied him to the crime, but they also showed him a fake test result on official-looking stationery. An appellate court said that lying was acceptable, but that the police could not create false documents that would taint legal proceedings.
These tactics and others have produced thousands of confessions that proved accurate, but also those that turn out to be false.
Joseph Buckley, a Chicago-based interrogation consultant and an author of the popular manual, stands by the nine-step method.
"We have developed a procedure that is very effective at getting a guilty person to tell the truth," he said. "The courts have said it is fine. But if it's abused, it's like anything else -- it can lead to problems."
The Videotapes: A Safeguard and a Backstop
The number of false confessions is perpetually in contention, with prosecutors saying that many defendants recant confessions by claiming that the police had coerced them, and defense lawyers saying that false confessions happen more frequently than prosecutors acknowledge. But the confessions that do prove false usually occur in highly publicized, violent cases in which the police have few leads and are under pressure to make an arrest.
To bolster the integrity of interrogations, legal scholars and even some prosecutors have urged that they be recorded. "Not just the confession," said Kevin Doyle, chief of New York State's Capital Defender Office, "because that's the opening night performance. You want to see those rehearsals."
In New Mexico, for example, officers often carry tape recorders on the hip. Interrogation recording is the law in Alaska and Minnesota, and has been proposed for two years in Connecticut, at the urging of supporters of Richard Lapointe, whom they believe falsely confessed to murdering his wife's grandmother.
In 1994, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered the police to record custodial interrogations whenever feasible. The penalty for failing to do so, the court said, could be the suppression of the suspect's statements at trial. The court was inspired by a murder case in which a suspect said officers read Miranda warnings late in the interrogation, did not ask whether he understood his rights and fabricated statements.
The decision has had a powerful impact on law enforcement, said Mike Freeman, the county attorney in Minneapolis. Officers keep tape recorders in squad cars and most interrogation rooms have one-way mirrors and video recorders. Every month, prosecutors study 300 to 400 tapes.
As a result, fewer defendants claim confessions were coerced, he said. "But it can be tougher on cops when they're convinced a suspect did it," Freeman said. "If they could do some special coercion he'd sing, but they can't because the tape is on."
The rule has also produced some intriguing legal challenges. "It's not feasible for an officer to be holding a gun in one hand and a tape recorder in the other," Freeman said drily.
In Tulsa, Okla., law enforcement officials decided almost 15 years ago to videotape interrogations so that juries could study suspects' reactions to a barrage of questions and see them dressed very differently from their cleaned-up court attire.
Sgt. Mike Huff, a detective supervisor for the homicide squad, said that in a murder case that ended with a death penalty conviction in December, the suspect walked into the interrogation room, unaware the video camera was rolling, and made some incriminating statements. When he was given Miranda warnings, he stopped talking. But because the earlier statements had been made spontaneously, outside of interrogation, and were recorded electronically, they became potent evidence at trial.
"So we're going to worry about spending $5 on tape for a major crime investigation?" Huff asked.
Geller, who studied interrogation videotaping for the Department of Justice, found that although the police and prosecutors initially resisted the practice, their attitudes changed markedly. That is because recording led to a wealth of positive effects: Defense lawyers folded their cards more quickly and jurors' doubts about police testimony were dispelled.
This is significant because jurors have become less accepting of cases built exclusively on confessions, said Fred Klein, a senior Nassau County prosecutor. "Jurors are watching a lot of Court TV and they're getting used to thinking that if you charge someone with a crime, you have to have six different ways to prove it."
Videotaping is what probably saved Richard Bingham of Sitka, Alaska, from a first-degree murder conviction. Last summer, he went on trial, charged with raping and murdering a 17-year-old. No forensic evidence tied him to the crime. But prosecutors had Bingham's confession.
Because of Alaska law, his interrogation had been recorded. Jurors could see how Bingham, who suffered from alcoholic blackouts and had no memory of the crime that interrogators said he had committed, kept missing all the cues being fed him. They acquitted him.
In cases like Bingham's and Louis', the defendant became a victim who suffered from the rush to judgment. But crime victims and the victims' survivors, to say nothing of the public, also suffer from the false confession.
"Even after an acquittal, the police usually refuse to reopen the investigation," said Ofshe, "because they refuse to admit they made a mistake."
Hoffman, Jan. 1998. "As Miranda Rights Erode, Police Get Confessions From Innocent People." New York Times, March 30, 1998:A1. (This is the title from the NYT website. The title from the paper was "Police Refine Methods So Potent, Even the Innocent Have Confessed.")