“People will believe in a confession in spite of overwhelming contrary evidence,” says Jim Trainum, a retired detective from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department with nearly 30 years of experience interrogating suspects.
Invited to speak to students on Feb. 13 by the Innocence Project chapter at the Columbus School of Law, Trainum stressed that because jurors are inclined to accept confessions, even if they don’t stand up to logic and reasoning, it’s vitally important that they actually be true.
A surprising number aren’t. Whether due to nervousness, police pressure in the interrogation room, or any number of subtle psychological and sociological factors, some suspects will spill out stories that are damning to their freedom but have little or no basis in what actually happened.
An estimated 25 percent of exonerations involve false confessions, “and in most cases, you don’t see them,” Trainum noted. Research reveals that false confessors mostly commonly lie about evidence.
Contrary to what TV shows depict, the majority of interrogations are not taped. Some jurisdictions even permit detectives to destroy their notes after a questioning.
“How do we really know what’s going on in that interrogation room?” Trainum asked.
The nine-step “Reid Technique,” widely used in law enforcement, is designed to help interrogators elicit reliable accounts of a crime that will hold up in court. Its inventors claim the technique is 80 to 90 percent accurate.
Trainum doesn’t buy it and assured the Innocence Project students that the real reliability rate is closer to 50 percent.
“Trained personnel are usually more confident in their results than is justified,” he said."The detective is convinced the person is guilty and it's all downhill from there."