False Confessions and Coercive Police Interrogations

Last week, I viewed the FRONTLINE program The Confessions, a documentary about the Norfolk Four. For me, the video really reinforced the importance of the Bill of Rights and its role in protecting the innocent. The Fifth Amendment states that “No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Popularized by the Miranda warning, the privilege against self-incrimination requires that the police adhere to certain procedural safeguards in recognition of the intimidating nature of incommunicado police interrogation. When people fail to forcefully assert their right to remain silent, the results can be tragic.

In a criminal trial, a lot can go awry: eyewitnesses may identify the wrong suspect or expert witnesses may reach an incorrect conclusion based on improper forensics. Add to that the possibility of lying by jailhouse snitches and deliberate forensic lab misconduct, and the jury is left with a potentially confusing and contradictory body of evidence from which to divine the truth. So, logically, the gold standard in a criminal case should be a confession by the defendant. After all, no one confesses to a crime that they did not commit, right?

Now, before any of us can confidently assert that we will never falsely admit to committing a crime, consider the Norfolk Four case. There, the police elicited not just one false confession, but a series of false confessions from each of the four defendants. Furthermore, these individuals were not just average citizens, but four members of the military. Think about that. The Norfolk police was able to get four members of the U.S. military to admit to raping and murdering a woman, even though they did not do. Keep this in mind the next time you read or hear that a certain defendant confessed to committing a crime.

So, on one hand you have audio recordings by each of the Norfolk Four confessing to the crime. On the other hand, the forensic evidence shows only the presence of DNA from one assailant–Omar Ballard–who was totally unrelated and unconnected to any of the four defendants. And, in the case where no physical evidence tied any of the Norfolk Four to the crime scene, the jury still convicted all four of them based solely on their confessions. Perhaps, the only saving grace in this case was that none of the defendants were sentenced to death and wrongfully executed.

Additional Resources

Justia Dockets & Filings provides ongoing coverage on the status of the petitions for writ of habeas corpus filed by the Norfolk Four in federal court.