Why Do Innocent People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit?

The answer all too often is coercion, intimidation, deceit and trickery. All of those techniques were employed to obtain the conviction of four innocent sailors for the rape and murder of a woman in Norfolk, Virginia. Danial Williams after only 11 days of marriage was arrested and charged with the crime. After relentless questioning and threats for 11 hours, he confessed. When the confession did not fit the actual facts, he was again questioned and convinced to alter his confession to jibe with those facts.

Because Williams' DNA failed to match any at the crime scene, the police next interrogated his roommate, Joe Dick. Subjected to the same harassment, Dick likewise confessed. For reasons too complicated to recount here, a total of eight men were charged with the gang rape and murder of Michelle Bosko, including two other sailors, Eric Wilson and Derek Tice.

Although one of the eight, Omar Ballard confessed to the crime as the sole perpetrator and that his was the only DNA that matched that at the crime scene, the prosecution of the others proceeded. All four sailors were convicted. Three received life sentences without parole and one was sentenced to eight and half years, and he has since been released. The other three received conditional pardons from Governor Tim Kaine after serving 11 years in prison. Various court proceedings are now underway regarding the convictions and claims of prosecutorial and constitutional abuses. Those, of course, could be obviated by the state confessing error and consenting to vacating the convictions. Doing justice may require conceding wrongdoing rather than clinging to convictions so fraught with injustice.

The detective who obtained the confessions has been convicted of corruption and lying to the FBI. He was indicted and convicted for extorting money from defendants in exchange for getting them favorable treatment. Despite the conditional pardons granted to them, because they were not exonerated as felons or sex offenders, the sailors face varying impediments, such as reporting monthly to a probation officer, drug and alcohol tests, curfews, sex offender registration, limits on job opportunities and the stigma which necessarily follows them. The plight of these individuals and the dedication of their pro bono lawyers will be recounted by Frontline on PBS on Nov. 9, 2010 entitled The Confessions.

In the 261 exonerations based upon DNA evidence, clear evidence of innocence, approximately 20 percent of the convictions set aside were based upon false confessions. There is no more powerful evidence in a criminal trial than a confession by the defendant himself. There is no greater injustice than when those confessions are obtained through threats and intimidation and result in the conviction of innocent persons.