It is hard — near impossible — for most of us to believe that innocent people sometime falsely confess to committing horrible crimes. In fact, most people insist that they would never confess to a murder or rape that they did not commit. Not under any circumstances.
But Henry Lee McCollum did. McCollum, a 19-year old mentally disabled black man (his IQ tested as low as 51), was arrested and subjected to police interrogations for the rape and murder of a child. Under intense police questioning, McCollum confessed to the crime. Shortly after, McCollum’s 15 year-old half-brother, Leon Brown (his IQ tested as low as 49), signed his confession. Despite their prompt recantations and the absence of physical evidence to tie the boys to the crime, both were convicted and sentenced to death. They spent the next three decades futilely protesting their innocence until DNA evidence finally established the guilt of another man. Released in early September after 30 years on North Carolina’s death row, McCollum was asked why he confessed to the crime. McCollum said he told the police what they wanted to hear so that he’d be able to go home.
Because of their youth and their intellectual disabilities, both McCollum and Brown were highly susceptible to coercive police interrogations. But it’s not just young people or intellectually disabled people who falsely confess to crimes.
Sometimes people falsely confess because they can’t withstand the police questioning. They falsely confess because, at some point, they make the decision that admitting guilt will benefit them in that moment more than maintaining their innocence. For many people, police interrogations are a terrifying experience that can go on for hours, with no end in sight. Some people admit guilt simply to end the grueling interrogation experience. In response to a barrage of relentless techniques specifically designed to break people down, some people just give up, and hope the truth will later be revealed.
Twenty-seven-year old Kevin Fox was in that latter category. He was not a juvenile, nor was he intellectually disabled, but he nevertheless falsely confessed to the murder of his three-year-old daughter after over 14 hours of relentless interrogation. As soon as he could, Fox recanted his confession. Fox spent 8 months in prison before DNA exonerated him and inculpated a neighbor already in prison for sexual assault. Fox later said he was exhausted by the hours of questioning, and that he was promised he would be quickly released if he said his daughter’s death was an accident.
According to the Innocence Project, 30 percent of all DNA exonerations involve false confessions. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates that 182 out of 1432 known exonerations (or 13 percent) involved a false confession as a contributing factor.
The frequency of false confessions, in part, reflects the irony that when the police arrest the wrong person, the case against that person will be highly circumstantial and lacking in physical evidence. After all, an innocent person, in fact, did not commit the crime and little or no physical evidence, in fact, exists against them. But if the police decide (based on gut instinct, bad information, tunnel vision, or simply a desire to close the case), that they have the right suspect in custody, they will lean even harder on that suspect because they have no other evidence — the police need a confession to make their case.
When the strongest piece of evidence against a suspect is a confession, then judges, prosecutors and the police should take care. In the case of McCollum and Brown, if the police or prosecutor had looked carefully at the case in front of them, and listened carefully to the young men’s insistent cries of innocence, the police might have found the actual killer — a man who lived close-by the two teens, and who was arrested and later convicted for another similar rape and murder. Instead, McCollum slipped from teenager to middle-aged adult in the deep desolation of North Carolina’s death row, while the real killer walked the streets until he was caught for another, unrelated crime.
There is not always truth in a confession.