Thursday, November 17, 2011

False Confessions May Lead to More Errors in Evidence, a Study Shows

A man with a low IQ confesses to a gruesome crime. Confession in hand, the police send his blood to a lab to confirm that his blood type matches the semen found at the scene. It does not. The forensic examiner testifies later that one blood type can change to another with disintegration. This is untrue. The newspaper reports the story, including the time the man says the murder took place. Two witnesses tell the police they saw the woman alive after that. The police send them home, saying they “must have seen a ghost.” After 16 years in prison, the falsely convicted man is exonerated by DNA evidence.How could this happen?

“False confessions can corrupt other evidence, both from laypeople and forensic experts,” says John Jay College of Criminal Justice psychologist Saul Kassin, summarizing a new study conducted with Daniel Bogart of the University of California Irvine and Nova Southeastern University’s Jacqueline Kerner. The findings, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, have far-reaching implications for judges and juries, prosecutors and defense attorneys.Confessions, when true, are an important tool in convicting criminals. But false confessions frequently play a major role in convicting innocent people. Experiments show that juries and potential witnesses are influenced by confessions even if they know they were coerced. Also in the lab, experienced polygraph examiners, fingerprint experts, and other experts, when informed of a confession, see what they expect to see—that is, evidence of guilt.

To back up these findings with real-life data, the psychologists thoroughly reviewed the trial records of 241 people exonerated by the Innocence Project since 1992. Of these, 59—or 25 percent—involved false confessions, either by the defendant or an alleged accomplice. One-hundred eighty—or 75 percent—involved eyewitness mistakes. The analysis revealed that multiple errors turned up far more often in false confession cases than in eyewitness cases: 69 percent versus fewer than half. And two thirds of the time, the confession came first, followed by other errors, namely invalid forensic science and government informants.

Kassin believes the findings “greatly underestimate the problem” because of what never shows up in court: evidence of innocence. Told the suspect confessed, “alibi witnesses back out, thinking they’re mistaken,” police stop searching for the real culprit. “We show that confessions bring in other incriminating evidence that is false. What we don’t see is a tendency to suppress exculpatory evidence.”The study throws doubt on a critical legal concept designed to safeguard the innocent: corroboration. Appeals courts uphold a conviction even if a false confession is discovered, as long as other evidence—say, forensics or other witness testimony—independently shows guilt. “What these findings suggest is that there may well be the appearance of corroboration,” says Kassin, “but it is false evidence that was corrupted by the confession—not independent at all.”Already, many states require that interrogations be taped, so that confessions are not coerced or taken when the suspect is in psychological distress. With this study, “Juries and judges have more reason to critically evaluate the conditions under which that other evidence was taken, too.”

###For more information about this study, please contact: Saul Kassin at APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "Confessions that Corrupt: Evidence from the DNA Exoneration Case Files" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Divya Menon at 202-293-9300 or © Association for Psychological Science

Friday, November 04, 2011

Proposed Sarasota County Ordinances

Two new ordinances are under consideration by Sarasota County Government. The ordinances concerns second hand dealers and recyclable metals. The present text of the ordinances can be found here.

I am against these ordinances. Whether you agree or disagree, you have an opportunity to comment by sending an e-mail to

Here is what I sent in:

Dear Sarasota County Commissioners:

My name is Adam Tebrugge. I have been a resident of Sarasota County since 1979. I purchased my home in the City of Sarasota in 1986. I operate my law practice, Tebrugge Legal, in the City of Bradenton, though I practice extensively in Sarasota County. Though I am a member of many organizations, I am writing solely in my role as a private citizen.

I appreciate the work effort of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office and the Sarasota County Attorney's Office in drafting the proposed ordinances. They have invited me to make recommendations for improving the ordinances. However, for the reasons I give below, I am recommending that you vote against each of the proposed ordinances.

The Ordinances Are Duplicative Of State Law:
I work primarily as a criminal defense attorney. Every day I defend persons charged with burglary, criminal mischief, theft and dealing in stolen property. State criminal law already provides for substantial punishment for each of these crimes. I do not understand why Sarasota County would need to pass ordinances on the same subjects.

The Ordinances Are Not Needed:
In the preamble to each ordinance, I find the statement: "Sarasota County citizens and businesses have suffered recent losses in excess of $7.9 million." No foundation or citation is provided to support this assertion. Even if true, I do not understand why a separate ordinance is needed when theft and dealing in stolen property are already crimes.

The Ordinances Will Likely Have a Severe Impact Upon Existing Businesses:
Honestly I am astonished at the number of regulations that these ordinances will place on existing businesses. The amount of record keeping and compliance that is required will be extremely burdensome. Essentially these ordinances require intense work by private businesses solely for the purpose of aiding law enforcement investigations.

Second Hand Dealers and Recyclers Are Already Cooperative With Law Enforcement:
In practicing criminal law in this area for the past 27 years, I have learned that businesses in Sarasota County routinely go above and beyond the call of duty to assist law enforcement with investigations. Ordinances of this type will discourage voluntary cooperation because of the mandatory compliance requirements and threats of penalties.

Enforcement of These Ordinances Will Unnecessarily Burden Sarasota County Government:
From what I understand, Sarasota Sheriff's Deputies and Sarasota County Code Enforcement Officers will have mutual enforcement responsibilities. I am of the opinion that members of each of these departments already have enough to do. Therefore, it appears to me that Sarasota County would have to undertake significant expenditures to hire additional staff to ensure compliance with these ordinances.

The Ordinances Will Discriminate Against the Poor:
I have worked with indigent citizens for my entire legal career. I know a lot of people who have worked collecting recyclable materials or second hand goods in order to maintain a meager economic existence. I am very concerned that the requirements of these ordinances will have a disproportionate impact upon those citizens of Sarasota who live below the poverty line. Many of the people I work with have no identification or bank account. I do not believe that Sarasota County is allowed to prohibit cash transactions as the ordinance appears to do.

The County May Be Incurring Substantial Legal Fees to Defend These Ordinances:
I have reviewed the ordinances carefully and had great deal of difficulty understanding the purpose behind them, the requirements upon our citizens and businesses, the enforcement mechanisms and the punishment for violations. I believe that if these ordinances are passed, Sarasota County will be paying to defend them in Court for years to come. I sincerely believe that money could be better spent on other efforts.

Thank you for your consideration of my comments.

Adam Tebrugge