Will the 'The Big Apple' Trump 'The Windy City' When It Comes to False Confessions?

Anxious detectives did not have the luxury of waiting for DNA results. Their orders were to close cases. The easiest way for them to do that was to pressure witnesses to make identifications, coerce confessions from suspects, or rely on snitches.
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There have been more documented false confessions from Chicago than any other city in the United States. By my count, New York City is a distant second. This has led Peter Neufeld, a New Yorker, and co-director of the Innocence Project, to proclaim that, "Quite simply, what Cooperstown is to baseball, Chicago is to false confessions. It is the Hall of Fame."

But I am not convinced that Mr. Neufeld's New York has to play "Second City" to my Chicago when it comes to false confessions. I think that are many more false confessions yet to be found in New York City. And it took The Central Park Five -- the wonderful documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon -- about the five young men who were wrongfully convicted of the rape and attempted murder of the "Central Park Jogger" to make me see the light.

Those, like me, who study false confessions, know that certain conditions give rise to clusters of false confessions. Sometimes, it is a high-profile crime, often involving a vulnerable victim, which stuns the city, strikes fear in the hearts of its citizens and brings intense pressure on the police to solve the crime (think Central Park Jogger). More often, however, it is an unprecedented surge in homicides or violent crime that leaves citizens cowering in fear, wondering if they will be the next victims of seemingly random violence (think New York in the 1980s and Chicago in the 1990s). Nothing brings more pressure to bear on a beleaguered police force than a pile of unsolved homicide cases. And when police are under pressure, they bring that pressure into interrogation rooms and often coerce witnesses and suspects into giving false statements.

These were the conditions in Chicago that led police officers there to coerce dozens of false murder confessions from innocent suspects in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, the influx of crack cocaine sent Chicago's homicide rate soaring as warring street gangs fought to control the lucrative drug trade. Between 1989 and 1998 -- Chicago averaged 834 homicides a year. During one four-year span, from 1992-1996, Chicago averaged 914 homicides. To put this in perspective, last year's 512 homicides -- which earned Chicago the title of "Murder Capital U.S.A." -- were a drop in the bucket compared to the 1990s.

In Chicago, crack cocaine not only led to an increase in gangland-style murders, it unleashed a new breed of serial killer and rapist on Chicago's streets. These men were drug-addicts who traded crack for sex and then murdered dozens of prostitutes and left their bodies in abandoned crack houses or dumpsters throughout Chicago's South Side.

Chicago not only had more murders, but these murders were much harder to solve. Gone were the days when most murders were interpersonal, the result of petty jealousies, vendettas or alcohol-fueled bouts of violence. When faceless black and brown boys and men emerged from the gangways with guns blazing or leaned out of car windows to open fire before speeding away, Chicago detectives were often left with little solid evidence to connect these crimes to their perpetrators.

In the cases of the murdered prostitutes, the killers often left their DNA on their victims but the use of DNA testing in court was in its infancy, and anxious detectives did not have the luxury of waiting for DNA results. Their orders were to close cases. The easiest way for them to do that was to pressure witnesses to make identifications, coerce confessions from suspects, or rely on snitches.

As the Central Park Five film made clear, these same breeding grounds of wrongful convictions existed in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. In these decades, New York's homicide rate made Chicago's rates look like a walk in Central Park. Between 1980 and 1994, New York City averaged 2,150 murders a year. Crack cocaine hit New York streets four or five years before it hit Chicago, causing New York City's murder rates to hit a record high of 2,605 murders in 1990. As the film so vividly depicts, these were the days when one New Yorker was murdered every four hours, vigilantes like Bernard Goetz were treated as heroes and Donald Trump paid for full-page ads calling for the death penalty to be reinstated.

High numbers of unsolved homicides also tend to bring hot-shot detectives like Louis Scarcella to the forefront. Glorified for their ability to get confessions, cops like Mr. Scarcella -- whose actions in obtaining a false confession from John Ranta have led authorities to take a closer look at 50 of his past cases -- are lionized when the murder rate rises because they are "closers." They clear cases. Their rises to prominence are often paved by prosecutors and judges who tend to turn a blind eye when these closers violate suspect's constitutional rights or a deaf ear when they embellish, exaggerate or lie on the witness stand.

One of the sobering lessons of the Central Park Five is that the pressure to clear homicides infects even so-called elite homicide squads like Manhattan's North Homicide. Not only did the pressure lead these experienced detectives to coerce five false confessions from innocent teenagers, it allowed the true perpetrator, Matias Reyes, to slip through their hands and rape and kill some more. If the Manhattan North squad could get it so wrong in the Jogger case, imagine how many times some of the less-skilled or less-resourced homicide units throughout the city were making mistakes.

The answer is "quite often" if one believes Michael Race, a former Detective Sergeant during the days when crack cocaine-related homicides flooded his Brooklyn beat. Mr. Race retired from the force in 1993 but has since returned as a private detective to help clear several innocent men whom he had helped to wrongfully convict when he relied on a snitch who turned out to be a liar. In a 2001 interview with New York Times Reporter Jim Dwyer, Race spoke openly about the sloppy police work that he and others routinely engaged in when forced to triage cases:

You were dealing with a minimum number of detectives and a vast number of bodies... A habitual liar comes forward and fooled me. Me, the D.A., the D.A.'s detectives, the grand jury, the judge, the trial jury.

Although Mr. Race relied more often on unreliable snitches and single eyewitness identifications to close his cases, some of his brethren like Mr. Scarcella relied on unreliable confessions. Whatever the cause, if Mr. Race's claims of systemic-wide sloppy police-work are true, the Central Park Jogger case is only the tip of an iceberg of wrongful convictions that have yet to be uncovered from the days when New York was the "murder capital."

So far, New York's false confession numbers still lag behind Chicago's. But New York may yet steal Chicago's status as the "False Confession Capital." The numbers are in our favor. New York had two-three times as many as homicides as Chicago during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. According to the Innocence Project, when one looks at the DNA-exonerations in the homicide cases in its dataset, there are twice as many wrongful convictions based on false confessions than eyewitness misidentifications. With a little more digging into cases from the heyday of New York's homicide era -- and many innocence organizations, defense attorneys and journalists from the City appear to be doing just that -- and a little luck in finding and testing forensic evidence, New York may no longer have to play "Second City" to Chicago when it comes to false confessions.

Steven A. Drizin is a Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and an attorney at Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions.

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