ECBAWM partner and civil rights attorney Ilann Maazel was featured on the latest episode of The Trial Brief, a podcast hosted by New York City trial attorney David M. Oddo.
In “False Confessions and Faulty Witness Identification,” Maazel walks listeners through the evolution of wrongful conviction case law, including the role of DNA in uncovering truth and the creation of the Innocence Project, through the New York State Bar Association’s Report of Taskforce on Wrongful Convictions, which concluded that the top two causes of wrongful convictions are false confessions and mistaken stranger witness identification.
Maazel also explains the factors that can lead to a false confession, including whether the person being interrogated is young, potentially has a developmental disability, or is impressionable, as well as the length of the interrogation. “The longer the interrogation is, the more likely you’re going to get a false confession, because the message the interrogators are sending is, ‘until you admit to something, we’re not letting you go,’” says Maazel. “Just about anyone could confess to something they didn’t commit. You just want to tell them what they want to hear so you can get out.”
This immediate need to be free of the interrogation can override any other thought process. “Many people believe, incorrectly and tragically, that even if they falsely confess to something to just end the interrogation, the truth will come out later, because of course they know they’re innocent,” says Maazel. “But the truth doesn’t always come out later, or at least the prosecutors and juries don’t always understand what the truth is later.”
Maazel notes that while confessions are videotaped, interrogations are often not. “If you want to understand the iceberg, you don’t just look at what’s above the water. The critical work occurred before the camera was turned on.” Cameras should be required to be turned on from the very beginning of the interrogation, explains Maazel. “Let’s have the will to get to the truth, and not just the will to have the ‘gotcha’ evidence at the end that leads to a potential conviction.”
The second main contributing factor to false confessions is mistaken identification of strangers. Maazel cites The National Registry of Exonerations, a database created by the University of Michigan Law School that documents every known exoneration since 1989. “As of this recording, there have been 782 exonerations involving mistaken witness identification, accounting for 9,455 lost years in prison,” says Maazel. “That is a staggering injustice caused by misidentification.”
Maazel outlines a multi-part approach to ending wrongful convictions, including a systemic review of every single case that has relied on stranger witness identification or a confession or both, rigorous application of the latest social science research about identifications and confessions, and a conviction integrity unit in every District Attorney’s office that is staffed by people other than career prosecutors. “We need to correct all those injustices,” says Mazel, “and we don’t have a moment to spare, because people are in jail who need help.”