In 1934, three black tenant farmers were arrested in Mississippi and charged with the murder of a local white planter. Although there was no real evidence linking them to the crime, and after their repeated denials, the arresting deputy whipped the men – two of them with a leather strap with buckles on it until their backs were torn to shreds – until they confessed. The confessions were used to convict them at trial, and they were sentenced to death until the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Brown v. Mississippi is one of the most egregious examples of a coerced confession, but far from the only one. More often than many of us want to admit, law enforcement officers can become so certain of a suspect’s guilt, so eager to make an arrest, that they take fail to follow procedure during interrogations. The Miranda readings get lost in the shuffle, or suspects are pressured to forgo their right to a lawyer. Legitimate interrogation techniques give way to unlawful coercion. And that leads to too many false confessions. The problem is particularly abhorrent when on realizes the number of children who’ve falsely admitted guilt.
In the worst case scenario, it doesn’t just cause an innocent to be jailed – it leaves the true guilty party free to continue victimizing society.
The Fifth Amendment prohibits coerced confessions, but there’s too frequently no record to prove coercion when a defendant challenges his statement. That’s why – more sooner than later – there need to ba a law on the books mandating the videotaping of police interrogations. It would not only prove when police go overboard in extracting a confession, but would also protect officer from false accusations of wrongdoing. The historic excuse of prohibitive costs can no longer be used – decent taping equipment can be had for the cost of a box of donuts. (Ok, that was a cheap shot, but I couldn’t help myself).
There’s no reason not to. It’s cheap and easy to use, and it protects all sides.