If I had three wishes, I'd use two of them to get Richard Niess and Noble Wray to read The Wrong Guys (The New Press), a new book about the The Wrong Guys tells the story of how police in Norfolk, Virginia, got a succession of four men to confess to the brutal 1997 rape and murder of an 18-year-old bride named Michelle Bosko.
Each of the four -- all active or former members of the U.S. Navy -- were subjected to a battery of tricks by a detective known to have obtained false confessions in the past. They were isolated and badgered, fed details of the crime, pointedly accused and deliberately confused, until they said what police wanted to hear.
The men's accounts kept changing and were at odds with each other. They did not fit the facts of the crime or the physical evidence. Another man later confessed to being solely responsible for Bosko's murder, and DNA evidence tied him and only him to the crime. He says he acted alone. But, in an especially grotesque display of the justice system's pathological refusal to admit when it's wrong, three of the men convicted on the basis of their confessions remain behind bars.
It's a stunning story. The cops would question a suspect until he confessed; then, when DNA evidence excluded him, they'd pick up somebody else and secure another confession. At one point, eight people were charged for their alleged involvement in the crime. One of them, Joe Dick, was so firmly persuaded of his own guilt that he repeatedly testified to it under oath, implicating a changing array of others.
As strange as this seems, the book argues that false confessions are actually fairly common. Coauthor Leo also wrote Police Interrogation and American Justice, which addresses this phenomenon. He documents case after case in which confessions have been obtained from undeniably innocent people -- including former Texas resident Chris Ochoa, who was freed by the Wisconsin Innocence Project and went on to get a UW law degree.
People fear police and their authority and their minds are remarkably susceptible to suggestion. At some point a person's will can be overcome.
Noble Wray, Madison's chief of police, ought to know this. In 1997, the year Michelle Bosko was murdered, Madison police pressured a rape victim named Patty to admit that she had made a false report of sexual assault, then had her charged with a crime when she went back to her original account. Patty, the subject of my 2006 book, public apology. And then he drafted a new policy on handling purported victims of sexual assault and other sensitive crimes that explicitly reaffirmed the ability of police to lie to them during questioning.
Dane County Judge Richard Niess, meanwhile, recently stated in court that he agreed police needed to keep certain evidence out of the public domain, in part so they can lie to suspects during questioning. Yet lying to suspects -- for instance, telling them that they failed lie-detector tests, as was repeatedly done for suspects in the Norfolk case -- is one of the main ways to obtain false confessions.
What happens is that the subject comes to feel that rationality is lost, that there is no hope, that maybe his own recollection is unreliable. And so he confesses.
Anyone who doubts this can happen needs to read The Wrong Guys. I'd make that my third wish.