Melissa Lucio, who was convicted of the murder of her 2-year-old daughter in 2008, was sentenced to death and was the first woman of Hispanic descent on death row in Texas. But after lawmakers, family members and supporters called into question the evidence that led to her conviction, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed her execution in April, giving her legal team a chance to present new evidence they say proves her innocence to the district court in Cameron County.
Many experts have called her confession wrongfully coerced by police. The American Psychological Association penned a resolution calling into question the tactics used to bring about such confessions in not just Lucio’s case but countless other cases in which innocent people may have been wrongfully convicted.
But Allison D. Redlich, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at George Mason University, says that because law enforcement across the country is fragmented and mostly uncollaborative, it is nearly impossible to pin down just how many people are affected by coerced confessions. Redlich, who has co-authored the case law book “Wrongful Convictions: Law, Social Science, and Policy,” spoke to Texas Standard about such confessions.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: In the Lucio case, supporters and documentarians were able to call into question the methods used to interrogate her. But some people might not recognize the issues of why that interrogation was called into question in the first place. Could you say a little bit more about the methods that go into what such a confession looks like?
Allison D. Redlich: Absolutely. We call the methods in the United States the accusatory or the confrontational approach. And that’s largely because interrogations in the United States are guilt presumptive. Law enforcement are trained in the United States to interrogate people they believe to be guilty. They have a bifurcated process where they first interview a person of interest. They use what are called deception detection techniques, where they’re trying to diagnose whether a person is either guilty or innocent. And after they make that determination and they believe the person is guilty, they then employ confrontational, accusatory or interrogation tactics.
The problem is, people in general – law enforcement specifically – are not very good at determining whether somebody is telling the lie or telling the truth, guilty or innocent. And therefore, what happens is that police sometimes interrogate people they are convinced are guilty but are, in fact, innocent. And this creates a very dangerous situation.
What is it that makes it so dangerous?
It’s because we’re all susceptible to confirmation biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. I think most people are familiar with those terms where we see what we want to see. So when the police believe that they’re interrogating someone who’s guilty, they’re not going to listen to that person’s denials, claims of innocence. My understanding is that Miss Lucio, you know, denied that she hurt her daughter more than 100 times. But when the police believe somebody to be guilty, they’re really just looking for a confession, and they’re not going to stop until there is a confession.
And they used very commonly what are called minimization techniques. Things like “this was just an accident; I know you didn’t mean it.” Or perhaps you know, “it was self-defense,” but all of those things can either explicitly or implicitly promise leniency. Typically an innocent person who gives a false confession may be interrogated for many, many hours. They’re exhausted; they’re beleaguered. And they’re just ready to give in. And they realize at some point that “I’m not going to leave this interrogation room until I offer some kind of admission.”
And so they accept a kind of hypothetical explanation that an interrogator may offer that sounds like they’re admitting to something lesser, but in fact, ultimately ends up amounting to what the courts would view as a legal confession.
Well, we’ve been talking about Lucio here, but how often would you say people hear about these sorts of confessions?
Not nearly enough. They’re very hard to track. We have a very, very fragmented criminal justice system in the United States. I believe there are more than 18,000 different law enforcement agencies, and there’s very little coordination. So the only really way for a potential false confession to come to the attention is through the courts: Defense attorneys have to raise the issue that this is a possible false confession. Ideally, from my standpoint, they’re going to bring in an expert to educate the judge and the jury about the risk factors of false confessions and why the circumstances under which an innocent person might give a false confession. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of criminal cases in the United States, 97% of convictions are through guilty pleas. And in those circumstances, it’s very unlikely that confession is going to be contested.
You mentioned the issue of confirmation bias. And the American Psychological Association, which you’re a part of, has come out with a resolution against these types of confessions. Could you say more about that and whether or not that could be a sort of tipping point in attitudes surrounding this?
Well, we certainly hope so. I mean, this is a very active science on interviewing interrogation. Researchers, people like myself have really nailed down what we should and should not be doing in the interrogation room. And the APA put forward some recommendations based on that science. Probably the easiest thing to do, and although it is somewhat controversial, is to simply electronically record the interrogation from beginning until end.
That’s not done currently?
It is starting to be done more and more often. But I would say the majority of police departments are still not recording interrogations. More states are enacting legislation to do this under certain circumstances, but certainly not for all interrogations. It’s not all states.