Pushback on Police Lying to Obtain False Confessions
by Jayson Hawkins
Lawrence Montoya was only 14 years old back in 2000 when Denver cops accused him of being involved in the murder of Emily Johnson, a local teacher. During the first two hours of interrogation, Montoya refuted detectives’ allegations of his presence at Johnson’s house over 60 times.
“Your footprint is in that blood,” a detective told him.
“We’ve got fingerprints, we’ve got blood prints, we’ve got saliva prints,” another said. “We’ve got everything.”
In fact, there was no physical evidence tying Montoya to the crime scene, and not a single one of the other suspects placed him there. That did not stop the detectives from grilling the teenager even harder with damned-either-way questions like, “Was she dead when you left her?”
Faced with that sort of relentless pressure, studies show that even innocent adults will often confess to crimes they never committed just to end the overwhelming stress caused by the seemingly endless badgering. Children, less likely to understand their rights and more likely to acquiesce to authority, have even less chance of withstanding repeated wrongful accusations and persistent threats.
Surely, they think, the truth will eventually win out, and justice will prevail.
“Unfortunately, what we know is that it rarely does get sorted out later,” said the Innocence Project’s director of policy, Rebecca Brown. “In fact, even in the face of exculpatory DNA evidence, fact-finders will often trump that evidence with confession evidence. In other words, they will believe the confession over the biological evidence that points elsewhere.”
The Innocence Project’s statistics show that false confessions have played a part in almost 30% of exonerations—a staggering number. Among those whose records were cleared by DNA evidence, roughly 30% gave their false confessions while they were minors, and nearly half were under 25.
The legality of cops lying to suspects in interrogations was established by the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969). That leeway gave rise to the Reid technique, the standard method employed in law enforcement questioning that uses deception, threats, and pressure to extract confessions or get suspects to implicate themselves.
John E. Reid and Associates, who developed and continue to teach the technique to investigators, claim that most false confessions come from misusing their methods. Lawmakers in other nations have long been aware of the potential for abuse inherent in a system built on deception, though. The United Kingdom has barred cops from lying to suspects since 1984.
American states have begun to realize the irreparable harm that deceptive police methods can cause. In July, 2021, Illinois passed a law barring cops from intentionally deceiving minors while questioning them. Oregon’s legislature voted in favor of a similar bill in the following weeks, and New York is considering legislation to the same effect.
Unfortunately for the untold numbers already convicted by false confessions coerced at the hands of police, the impact of changing policies comes far too late. In Montoya’s case, the teenager was slammed with a life sentence for a crime he had no part in. He spent the next 13 years—almost half his life—isolated in a prison cell waiting for a grievous wrong to be righted.
Even when his freedom was restored, it was only as the result of another shady legal tactic: Montoya had to plead guilty to being an accessory after the fact, which effectively shielded Colorado law enforcement from liability for his incarceration.
He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Denver in 2016, but even if he manages to prevail, no payout can compensate for a childhood spent behind bars.
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