The Whole Truth
Richard A. Leo On Why Innocent People Confess To Crimes
by Mark Leviton
In 1983 the police in Fauquier County, Virginia, arrested Earl Washington, a twenty-two-year-old, mentally disabled farmhand. He was a suspect in a burglary, but during two days of uestioning, detectives asked him about five other crimes. Washington, who had the IQ of a ten year old, confessed to all of them. Though four of the cases against him were dismissed, he was convicted of the fifth, a brutal rape and murder, and sentenced to death.
Washington spent a total of seventeen years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2000. Five different appellate courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — had upheld his conviction.
Confessions are seen as the gold standard of evidence in a trial, but cases like Washington’s are more common than people think.
Law professor Richard A. Leo has spent several decades trying to bring attention to the problem of false confessions. The public has not always been supportive of his efforts. The average citizen, he says, presumes suspects are guilty and believes they deserve whatever they get.
Leo’s work has been cited by the Supreme Court, and he’s been involved in many high-profle cases in which people have given false confessions, including the West Memphis Three and the Central Park Five. In 2010 he was featured in a PBS Frontline documentary about the Norfolk Four, who were the subject of Leo’s book, co-written with Tom Wells, "The Wrong Guys."
To understand how the police coerce an innocent suspect into admitting guilt, Leo has examined interrogation techniques, undergoing the appropriate training and sitting in on nearly two hundred interrogations. He says the problem is not necessarily a matter of misconduct by detectives, most of whom are “decent people who follow the rules.” Rather it’s a pattern of errors resulting from misguided methods and a presumption that police have arrested the guilty party.
Born in Italy, Leo grew up in Southern California, where his family moved when he was three. He describes himself as an “accidental lawyer”: while earning his PhD in social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early nineties, he was given the opportunity to earn a doctorate of jurisprudence concurrently almost for free. (He’s proud of having completed both degrees in four years.) He never wanted to practice law in a courtroom, but he’s often been called as an expert witness or hired as a consultant.
Currently the Hamill Family Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of San Francisco, Leo is the author of several books, including "Confessions of Guilt and The Miranda Debate", and he’s won awards from the American Society of Criminology, the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the American Psychological Association. Before coming to the University of San Francisco, he taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of California, Irvine. He has eight-year-old twin daughters and in his spare time plays guitar and is an avid boxing fan.
I met with Leo one rainy afternoon this past winter. He’d just changed offices and apologized for the mess; his shelves overﬂowed with lawbooks. We spoke for two hours, and he often shook his head or laughed uncomfortably at the tragic absurdities of our criminal-justice system.
This article was published by The Sun, July 2017. To read the full article, click here.