Jumbo shrimp, working vacation, false confession. It's not surprising that a lot of intelligent and generally well-informed people scoff at the notion that someone would confess to a serious crime if he or she didn't do it. "I would never in a million years confess to murder if I were innocent," people say. Like any oxymoron, the very idea of a false confession is counter-intuitive.
But as surely as you can taste the shrimp and bring your Blackberry to the beach, false confessions happen and always have. What's new is that we're only just becoming aware of the phenomenon through advances in DNA science. According to data from the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, some 25% of 142 DNA-proven wrongful convictions in recent years were false confessions. And the highest number of false confessions were for the most serious crime, murder.
There have been several exonerations involving false confessions that have received major media coverage in recent years. These include:
- The Crowe case, in which Michael Crowe, the brother of murder victim Stephanie Crowe, "confessed" to police (as did one of his friends) after 27 hours of interrogation. Later, DNA tests on a drifter's clothing led to the exoneration of Michael and the conviction of the drifter.
- The Central Park jogger case, in which five juveniles were convicted of rape and assault based on detailed "confessions" they gave after 40 hours of interrogation. Years later, a convicted serial rapist confessed, saying he acted alone, and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. There was no DNA evidence linking any of the other youths.
- The Bruce Godschalk case, in which Godschalk "confessed" to rape, was convicted and ultimately exonerated by DNA tests. Prosecutors fought to preserve Godschalk's conviction for seven years even after DNA tests by two separate labs proved his innocence.
- The Peter Reilly case, which has eerie similarities to the Tankleff case. Reilly "confessed" to killing his mother, but was saved when it was revealed that prosecutors had withheld evidence placing Reilly far from the scene of the crime when it occurred.
In the past few months alone, there have been major articles on false confessions in the Wall Street Journal, Newsday and the Associated Press. Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University sends the latest news on false confessions to an email list, often weekly, sometimes daily.
But even news reports and DNA-proven statistics, amounting to irrefutable proof that false confessions happen, do little to convince skeptics who believe in their heart there's no way innocent people--especially they themselves, were they to be wrongly accused, knock-on-wood--would confess to a serious crime.
To really get it, the key is to understand how false confessions happen. And the answer to how they happen lies in the traditional techniques used by those on the front line of our criminal justice system, the police. One particular type of false confession, the type that concerns observers in the Marty Tankleff case--the "coerced confession"--appears to be an inevitable by-product of these routine police tactics.
The Reid Technique®
If any of your local police officers still act like it's 1962, it may be because that's the year "Criminal Interrogation and Confession," the "interrogator's bible," was first published. Every classic technique you've seen in every cop show, starting with "Dragnet" (which debuted in 1951, no doubt with consulting detectives to make it realistic) can be found in this textbook, which was written four years before the landmark Miranda decision requiring police to read suspects their rights when in custody. The Supreme Court justices referred to the textbook in their Miranda decision.
According to the textbook's authors, Fred Inbau and John E. Reid, a successful interrogation begins with isolating the suspect in the proverbial bare interrogation room:
“The principal psychological factor contributing to a successful interrogation is privacy – being alone with the person under investigation....[I]n his own home, (the suspect) may be confident, indignant, or recalcitrant. He is more keenly aware of his rights and more reluctant to tell of his indiscretions within the walls of his home. Moreover, his family and other friends are nearby, their presence lending moral support....In his own office, the investigator possesses all the advantages. The atmosphere suggests the invincibility of the forces of the law.”
In the article "True Crimes, False Confessions", false confession expert Saul Kassin of Williams College (with co-author Gisli H. Gudjonsson), takes the reader through the Reid nine-step process, showing how, after isolating the suspect, the interrogator:
- "confronts the suspect with unwavering assertions of guilt.
- develops 'themes' that psychologically justify or excuse the crime.
- interrupts all efforts at denial and defense.
- overcomes the suspect's factual, moral and emotional objections.
- ensures that the passive suspect does not withdraw.
- shows sympathy and understanding and urges the suspect to cooperate.
- offers a face-saving alternative construal of the alleged guilty act.
- gets the suspect to recount the details of his or her crime.
- converts the latter statement into a full written or oral confession."
These tactics are described by the false-confession experts as powerfully coercive behavioral techniques that are proven effective on the innocent as well as the guilty. In "Why Do People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit?", Drizin explains how the tactics yield a confession, true or false:
"These tactics are designed to destroy the suspect's confidence that he will emerge from the interrogation without being harmed and to make the suspect think that he is powerless to bring an end to the interrogation unless he confesses.
"Once the suspect is on the brink of hopelessness, the interrogator engages in tactics designed to persuade the suspect that the benefits of confessing outweigh the costs of continued resistance and denial. Here, the interrogator makes offers to the suspect, ranging from low-end inducements like appeals to the suspect's conscience ("the truth will set you free") or religious beliefs ("God will forgive you"), to suggestions that the confession will be treated more favorably by those in the system with the power to determine his fate ("judges react more favorably to remorseful defendants"), to the more coercive inducements which expressly or by implication promise leniency or threaten harm. These "minimization" tactics suggest to the suspect two scenarios of how the crime was committed, one which is premeditated or cold-blooded, the other which is morally or legally justifiable (it was an accident, self-defense, or impulsive) and urge the suspect to choose the lesser of two evils. If a suspect claims he has no memory of the crime, the interrogator often suggests that the suspect committed the crime during a blackout or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These tactics build upon one another and are rehashed again and again throughout the interrogation until a suspect breaks down and says 'I did it.'"
Many casual observers of the criminal justice system are shocked to learn that it is perfectly legal for police to lie to suspects. In the Peter Reilly case mentioned above, police lied to the teenager that he had failed a lie-detector test. Applying relentless pressure, police were able to convince Reilly that he was guilty despite his having no conscious memory of murdering his mother. The courts have signed off on this tactic, apparently considering these lies small and inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.
According to Drizin, juveniles are among the most vulnerable to these techniques. "Juveniles are, of course, less mature than adults and have less life experience on which to draw. They may also be more compliant, especially when pressured by adult authority figures. Juveniles are thus less equipped to cope with stressful police interrogation and less likely to possess the psychological resources to resist the pressures of accusatorial police questioning." In a study Drizin did with Richard Leo, juveniles were disproportionately represented among the false confessors, and the majority of juvenile false confessors were between the ages of 14 and 17, the age range in which many alleged juvenile offenders are tried as adults. The reason the majority of false confessions are for the most serious crime, murder, is likely because police are applying their techniques the hardest in those cases. So guilty or innocent, a teenager accused of murder is badly outmatched in an interrogation.
One person's open-ended loud and confrontational dialogue is another person's psychological torture. Each of us has his or her own limit. A false confession can play out any number of ways, but often this existential moment is very ordinary, even prosaic, as by then the suspect has indeed "given up," in a manner of speaking. One can imagine a kind of relief at the release of resistance, a slumping surrender to one's fate. Can you remember as a child being persistently accused of something by a parent, teacher or camp counselor, and finally saying, "Okay, whatever you say, can I go now?" It can be that simple, only the authority figure is a law enforcement official with the power of the state behind him and you are now in more trouble than you can possibly imagine. You told him what he wanted to hear to get out of that room, but you can't take it back. It won't all be sorted out later.
Marty Tankleff was raised to respect authority and trust the police. His nature was to be helpful, and it was the reason he got in that patrol car with Detective James McCready to go to the police station, to provide more information on Jerry Steuerman, or so he thought. After hours of questioning, Detective McCready lied to Marty, telling him that his father had come out of his coma and named Marty as the attacker, and that Marty's hair was in his mother's hand. Believing that his father would never lie to him, and that the police wouldn't either, the traumatized teenager attempted to resolve this impossible dilemma by wondering, just as Peter Reilly had, and as the experts say suspects often do, "Could I have blacked out?" The experts even have a name for this particular sub-type of false confession: the "Internalized False Confession."
At his 1990 trial, under direct examination by his lawyer, Robert Gottlieb, Marty Tankleff described his interrogation some six hours after he discovered his mother dead and his father clinging to life, both brutally bludgeoned and stabbed.
Q How would you describe the pace of the questioning at this point?
A Very fast.
Q And how would you describe who's asking the questions at this point, by and large?
A Detective McCready.
Q And the tone of the voice that's being used at this point of the questioning, how would you describe that?
A Very pointed, direct, very factual.
Q Did you believe what Detective McCready was stating to you?
A Yes, I did.
Q Why was that?
A I was brought up to always believe in trusting cops and he was saying it as it was fact.
Q Do you know how long a period of time that stage of the questioning took, this confrontation stage?
A No, I don't.
Q Does there come a time Detective McCready leaves the room?
Q And where were you when he left the room?
A I was still in the room.
Q And where was Detective Rein?
A Right next to me.
Q And what happens when Detective McCready leaves the room?
A He goes to make a phone call.
Q And what happens?
A I heard him say something like, "Yeah, yeah. Well, that's great," and then he came back in.
Q And then what happens, Marty?
A He turned around to me. He was standing. He has his finger pointed towards me. He said, "Marty," he said, "get off the fuckin' bullshit about Jerry Steuerman because I just got off the phone with the detective at the hospital and they shot your father full of adrenalin, and he said you beat and stabbed him, Marty. He said you did it, Marty." And then he continued to say, "And your father said just tell us what we want to hear and help us."
Q And who made that comment about your father saying you beat and stabbed him?
A Detective McCready.
Q And when Detective McCready made those comments, was he standing or seated?
A He was standing.
Q How far was he from you?
A Within three feet.
Q And were you standing or were you seated?
A I was seated.
Q And when Detective McCready made those comments, did you notice anything about his hands?
A They were pointing towards me.
Q And if you can, Marty, just show us please how he used his hands when he made that comment to you?
A He was like this. [Indicating]
Q Moving it back and forth in front?
A Back and forth, yes.
Q Now, after Detective McCready told you what your father said that you should tell them, did he say anything else about what your father had said?
A Well, he said that-that -- they had taped the whole conversation, that they would play it for me later.
Q Taped what conversation?
A The conversation that they said that my father said.
Q And what was your response to that, Marty?
A I said, "I can't believe that." And they said, "Well, why would your father say that?" I said, "Because I helped him that morning."
Q And then what happened? Go on. What else was said?
A And then they continually said, "Well, you know, your father wouldn't lie about that." And I said, "Well, I'll take a lie detector test." And they stated to me, "We're not going to give you one now. We'll give you one later." And they said, "Well, Marty, you know your father said you did this. We've got your hair in your mother's hand. Just say you did it."
Q And then what was your response, Marty?
A And I said, "Could I have blacked out?"
Q Why did you say that?
A I started believing them that I did do this.
A Because they were saying my father said I did this. My father never lied to me.
Q After saying or asking could you have blacked out, what do you recall them saying to you?
A I recall them saying, "Marty, you know, there's--there's a Marty inside of you that knows what happened and have that Marty tell us what happened." And then I recall saying "Yeah, I did it."
Q Why did you say, "Yeah" at that time, Marty?
A They had me believing that I did it and that's what they wanted to hear.
Q Did you kill your mother?
A No. I didn't.
Q Did you kill your father?
A No. I loved my parents. I had nothing to do with this.
Q How were you feeling, what was your--your emotions at this point?
A I thought I was having a bad nightmare.
Q And at this point--after this point, Marty, do you recall questions being asked of you?
Q The questioning after this point, can you describe the tone of the questioning?
A It was very fast and it wasn't so much questioning. A lot of it was suggesting.
Q What do you mean by that?
A Statements were made to me like, "Well, you killed your mother first, didn't you?"
Q And what did you say?
A Well, when I said, "No," they said, "Well, Marty, we don't want to hear no. Just say yes."
Q And, again, who's making these comments by and large in that room?
A Detective McCready.
Q What, if anything, was said to you regarding a knife?
A Detective McCready said, "Well, what knife did you use?" I said, "I don't know. I didn't do this." And he said, "Well, Marty, I saw some knives in the kitchen." You know, "Did you use one of those?" I said, "I don't know." He says, "Well, we don't want to hear "I don't know. Just say yes."
Here it is in its entirety, Marty's "confession," written by Detective McCready, unfinished, and unsigned by Marty. The first time Marty saw it was months later at his "Huntley" hearings.
The "Narrative" Does Not Match the Crime
The problem with Marty's confession was explained in testimony at the hearing last year by Professor Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist at Berkeley who has testified in over 200 cases in over 30 states, in Federal and State court.
Ofshe testified that there are two necessary components of a confession. First is the admission. But equally important is a narrative that matches the facts of the crime scene. There has been dispute over the years over who is the author of the narrative of Marty’s “confession,” said Ofshe. McCready says the narrative came from Marty; Marty says it came from Detective McCready. But according to Ofshe, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s clear that whoever created the narrative knew nothing about how the murders took place.
Not only did Marty's "confession" not include any details only the perpetrator would know, which is what police ideally are looking for, it did not match the forensics in any way. Not one shred of physical evidence connected Marty to the crime, despite a three-day search of the crime scene by teams from Homicide, the Crime Laboratory, the Identification Section, the K-9 Unit and the Crime Scene Unit. All knives in the kitchen (and those found elsewhere in the house) and the barbells in Marty's room were disassembled and tested for even the most minute quantity of blood or human tissue. Each tested negative. Although the "confession" mentions a barbell, both the physician who treated Seymour at the hospital and the forensic pathologist testified the wounds were more consistent with a hammer. No hammer was ever recovered.
Marty's shower was searched exhaustively for blood, human tissue, hairs and fibers belonging to his parents, including the removal and analyzing the of the shower-drain trap. All tests proved negative. No drops of blood were found on the floor or white carpet between the parents' bedroom, the study or Marty's bathroom.
No blood, hair or fiber identified as Marty's was found in either room where the victims were located, despite the prosecutor's forensics testimony that Arlene Tankleff had struggled mightily against her attacker. While Marty was recovering at the time from nose surgery that had resulted in some bleeding, the police observed no cuts or other defensive wounds on Marty. Scrapings of his fingernails produced no evidence of a struggle. Scrapings of Arlene's fingernails, which were broken, produced no sign of Marty's skin.
Contrary to the "confession," which stated that Marty murdered Arlene and then murdered Seymour, Seymour's blood was found in the master bedroom where Arlene's body was found, thereby indicating a reverse order of attack. Bloody glove prints were found in the parents' bedroom and by the light switch in Marty's bedroom. But gloves were not mentioned in the statement and none were ever found.
In short, the facts—the physical evidence—do not match the narrative as written by Detective McCready. Therefore Marty's confession, according to Professor Ofshe, is actually evidence of his innocence.
Here's something they didn't teach us in school: For all the talk of "innocent until proven guilty" being the starting point in our criminal justice system, the standard police interrogation techniques outlined above are actually based on a presumption of guilt. Recall step one of the nine-step interrogation process: "confronts the suspect with unwavering assertions of guilt." The eight other steps are tactics designed to prove the presumption.
The Supreme Court's Miranda ruling is supposed to have drawn a clear line between interview and interrogation, with the latter not to happen without a suspect being read his rights. But how do police make this all-important transition from interview mode, in which they're supposed to have an open mind, to interrogation mode, in which they are working to elicit a confession to match their presumption of guilt? Travel back with us to 1962 and let the interrogator's textbook show us the way:
"Essentials of the Reid Technique [the abridged version of 'Criminal Interrogation and Confessions'] teaches readers how to spot and interpret verbal and nonverbal behaviors of both deceptive and truthful people, and how to move toward obtaining solid confessions from guilty persons. The Reid Technique is built around basic psychological principles and presents interrogation as an easily understood nine-step process."
These "basic psychological principles" include "Extensive Material on Evaluating Verbal, Paralinguistic and Nonverbal Behavior During a Structured Behavior Analysis Interview." In other words, it's based on "pseudo-science," as Drizin puts it, concocted at least a half-century ago. Other words to describe this process might include "hunch" or "hocus pocus." Today no behavioral psychologist taken seriously in the field would argue that body language can be an accurate indicator of truthfulness in this context.
So here's Detective McCready on the case, dressed for work and responding to the scene on the morning of the murders 19 minutes after the call goes out, despite not being in line to catch the next case that day and not living in the area. McCready recently recounted to A&E's "American Justice" his very first impression of Marty "...sitting on that wall up there...with his legs crossed and his hands folded over his knees. It struck me odd that he would be so calm, and he didn't appear to be upset."
The more one knows about the interview and interrogation process, the more McCready's famous statement to "48 Hours" last year, "I'm better than a polygraph," sounds less like a throw-away brag than a chilling sign that he had made up his mind that Marty was guilty from the get-go. It seems McCready didn't have much use for the Suffolk County detective's "Investigative Guide," which states that during interview mode the detective should "remain objective at all times" and "the suspect should be the last individual interviewed (i.e., records should be examined, witnesses or victims spoken to, and a background search made before the questioning session)." Steuerman may have been the last person Lead Detective McCready interviewed, if you can call their chat over bagels and coffee amid the customers at Steuerman's store on September 10th an interview. But we know Steuerman was never considered a suspect, even though McCready testified that Marty had told him before 8:30 a.m. on the morning of the crime that "his mother had said some two weeks earlier that Jerry Steuerman was going to do something like this."
Even the DA's recently filed final argument-brief acknowledges that Marty was considered a suspect from the start, based on his appearance and on inconsequential inconsistencies in his accounts of how he found his parents, as the traumatized teen was forced by police to repeat his story nine times at the scene that morning. (Who other than a cold-blooded killer who memorized his story in advance could tell his story nine times straight the exact same way?)
"Rein, Doyle and McCready conferred, and based on the discrepancies in Tankleff’s statements and his 'lack of emotion' and 'whole demeanor,' Doyle directed McCready to ask Tankleff to accompany detectives to headquarters. And although Tankleff and his attorneys have always contended that the detectives almost immediately suspected Tankleff and never suspected Steuerman, Tankleff’s lack of emotion and series of false statements would have led any rational detective to suspect him." (DA's brief, p. 194, emphasis in original.)
Last year, Professor Ofshe testified at Marty's hearing that the general public's tendency to believe innocent people don't confess causes a "natural bias" in juries. That's why jurors need to hear expert testimony about false confessions, and why prosecutors question the field even as they embrace the archaic and mystical divining of truth through the reading of body language. It is true that the whole field of study regarding false confessions is a new one that didn't exist at the time of Marty's trial, and as such it represents new evidence in Marty's case. Consider it analogous to the new body of knowledge on "battered woman syndrome," which led to the recent release, with the blessing of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, of Marie La Pinta, who served 22 years for her role in the murder of her husband.
In the end, Marty's "confession" is all Suffolk County prosecutors have, but if it's a false confession they truly have nothing. Given all the attention the Marty Tankleff case has received, and given the troubling aspects of the case that are public and common knowledge, the question of whether Marty's confession is false should haunt us all.