False Confessions and Interrogation Tactics


In 1989, a female jogger was brutally assaulted and raped when she was jogging through Central Park. Five males, ages 14 to 16 at the time, were arrested and confessed to the crime. They were tried and convicted in two separate trials. They became known as the “Central Park Five.”

In response to the arrest of the Central Park Five in 1989, Donald Trump placed an ad in the NYT, The Daily News, and New York Newsday calling for New York to “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our police!” The emotionally charged ad described the streets of New York as ruled by “roving bands of wild criminals.” He asked: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS.”

The Central Park Five were all convicted, almost entirely on their confessions that they committed the crime. But, as we now know, the Central Park Five didn’t commit the crime. That is an established fact. A serial rapist and murderer admitted to committing the crime in 2002 and DNA evidence confirmed his admission. After spending years in prison, all five young men were released from prison. The City of New York approved a $41 million settlement after the Central Park Five brought a civil suit against the city.

But why did five innocent teenagers confess to this brutal crime if they had nothing to do with it? There is no question that the confessions were a result of the interrogation techniques used by the police. False confessions are not as uncommon as you might believe, especially when it comes to the confession of a juvenile. In fact, various studies of convicted juveniles found that almost have of those later exonerated of the crime had made a false confession. Yet, juries almost always convict if the defendant confessed to the crime. Law enforcement is highly incentivized to obtain a confession.

In my practice, I have watched the video-taped interrogations (the police will call them “interviews”) of juveniles suspected of a crime. Watching these videos can be gut-wrenching when it appears more than obvious that the child did not commit what he or she is accused of but the police techniques seem to be focused on getting a confession regardless of the truth.

What are these techniques and why do the police use them? The most common interrogation technique used by police departments across the country is the “Reid Technique,” a systematic method of interrogating suspects developed over fifty years ago by a former cop, John E. Reid. The Reid Technique focuses on a three-stage process: gathering evidence, behavioral analysis of the suspect, and interrogation, which consists of nine parts. The technique, and most of its components, has been discredited in study after study. For example, the technique is predicated on the interrogator’s training to read non-verbal cues to determine whether a suspect is lying. Yet, three decades of research has proved that there is no scientific basis for concluding that non-verbal cues bear a relation to deception. Numerous research studies have proved that police do no better at reading these cues than they would if they just guessed by the toss of a coin.

John Reid died some years ago, but his company John E. Reid & Associates, Inc. and the techniques Mr. Reid developed trains more agencies in interrogation methods than any other company in this country. The company’s clients include not only police forces in every state but virtually every type of law enforcement agency including the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, and now, the schools. What? The schools? Yes, some teachers and school administrators are now being taught a version of the Reid Technique to use on students. Should we be alarmed?

Well, consider that the Reid Technique has been widely criticized for its non-scientific and psychologically coercive tactics. Add to that the fact that the International Association of Chiefs of Police warn against using even mildly coercive interrogation tactics when questioning juveniles due to the well-established science that the juvenile brain is not yet fully developed making young people susceptible to giving false confessions. My earlier post concerning the confession of the juvenile profiled in the documentary, Making a Murderer, makes this point. The concern is magnified when you consider that students at school don’t have the constitutional protections afforded to juveniles and adults being questioned in a police station.

The Central Park Five? Yes, each confessed after being “broken down” by a Reid Technique interrogation. Even though they quickly recanted, the confession was enough for the juries to convict. Civil liberties, Mr. Trump? Those rights should never be trampled on. It’s time for the Reid Technique to be replaced, not introduced to our schools!

If you have any questions about an arrest or conviction on a false confession or any other criminal matter, please feel free to contact me to set up a confidential consultation without charge at www.bill@william Weinberg.com or phone me at 949-474-8008.False