The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization which works to free or exonerate convicted individuals based on DNA evidence. The Innocence Project provides services at no cost to its clients, takes on some of the hardest cases, and provides support to clients after their release. The Innocence Project has already freed dozens of inmates and continues to work to free hundreds more. Below, we will examine three cases.
Patrick Brown served 8 years of a 22 to 70 year sentence for armed burglary, armed robbery, illegal possession of a firearm, and criminal conspiracy. He was convicted despite DNA evidence that excluded him as a culprit (Patrick Brown).
Two intruders had broken into a Pennsylvania home; they wore bandanas on their faces and were carrying guns. One struck the homeowner in the face with his gun, causing him to cover his face with his hands. The intruders then left through a back door (Patrick Brown).
The two robbers left behind a blue bandana and a hammer when they ran away. There were latent fingerprints and a footprint left, as well. The former evidence was not considered. Also, an officer stated he was familiar with and investigating Patrick Brown. Later, Brown was identified by the victim in a photo lineup. Brown’s charges were later dismissed due to a DNA match in CODIS, but he remains incarcerated for other charges (Patrick Brown).
The fact that the victim identified Patrick Brown in the photo lineup is truly not reassuring when one knows details about eyewitness accounts. For one, the victim was distracted by a weapon; he was also attacked and had limited visibility while trying to protect himself. All of these affect the reliability of his witness, because he was not fully focused on the details (Jonas &Herr, 2020).
The second case involves Mr. Jonathan Barr who served 14 years of an 85-year sentence for rape and murder. In November of 1991, 14-year old Canteresa Matthews went missing and in December, her body was found on a running path; she was identified as the victim of a sexual assault (Our Client).
There were no arrests or leads in the case for 10 months, until the police arrested Mr. Barr on October 20, 1992 after a witness stated that Jonathon Barr told him he saw Matthews getting into a car with Robert Lee Veal and Robert Taylor. Veal was brought in for questioning and implicated Barr, along with four other teenagers, in a hand-written statement (Our Client).
Before the trial, the Illinois state crime lab identified a sperm sample from the victim. The sample did not match any of the five defendants, but the source of the semen was never sought (Our Client).
Veal and Sharp plead guilty; the rest were convicted during a two-year period. Barr sentence was 85 years. His requests for appeals were denied, including a request for DNA testing. Luckily, DNA testing was sought again in August of 2009; the test revealed a complete CODIS match. On November 3, 2011, charges against Barr were dismissed (Our Client).
There are a couple of issues within the Barr case, the lack of DNA evidence aside. For one, ten months had passed since the crime had occurred, before there were any witnesses. The lapse between the time a crime occurs, and the identification of a perpetrator can affect the reliability of a perpetrator (Jonas &Herr, 2020).
Also, the perpetrators were all very young; they were 14 years old. It is known that the younger the suspect, the more likely that he or she is to give a false testimony. Although the teenagers all signed hand-written statements, their age makes their statements questionable (Jonas &Herr, 2020).
The final case involves Antonio Beaver. Antonio Beaver spent 10 years of an 18-year sentence in prison for armed robbery and carjacking. Thankfully, latent fingerprints and blood stains inside the automobile were collected and later analyzed. When the DNA evidence was considered, it did not match Antonio Beaver and he was released from prison.
There were several issues with the Beaver case. For one, the victim was a 26-year old white woman who was attacked by an African-American in a ball cap; the issues with this witness are two-fold. For one, the woman is identifying someone outside of her own race. It is known that reliability declines when someone is trying to identify another who is not of their race (Jonas &Herr, 2020).
Additionally, the perpetrator was wearing a ball-cap, which lessens her visibility of her attacker. When the visibility is lower, the reliability of the witness is lower (Jonas &Herr, 2020).
Lastly, there was the presence of a weapon; the victim was attacked with a screwdriver. When a weapon is present during a crime, it can distract the witness, in this case our victim. The victim becomes focused on the weapon, and less on other details, like the identity of her attacker (Jonas &Herr, 2020).
We have examined three cases in which there was, or nearly was, a false confession. We have revealed that over a quarter of convictions involve false confessions that occur for a variety of reasons. Chief among these are naivety of the accused, poor understanding of one’s rights, and a lower intelligence (Stambor, 2006).
A police interrogation can take hours to complete. Throughout the interrogation, police may lie about the evidence, promise lighter sentences if one confesses, or even offer suggestions about what might have led the suspect to commit the crime. Many suspects, tired and stressed from the hours of questioning are more likely to give in to one of these ploys to get out of the interrogation room (Stambor, 2006).
Not all false confessions are an attempt to get free from the interrogation room, however. Many innocents simply believe that the evidence will exonerate them; they sign Miranda waivers feeling like they have nothing to hide. Still, others begin to doubt their own memories, thinking they may have blacked out the crime (Stambor, 2006).
Certain populations are particularly vulnerable to false evidence that police may offer up, including children and those with disabilities. It is important that police alter their interrogation tactics for vulnerable populations (Stambor, 2006).
Overall, false confessions stem from naivety. Youth, the disabled, and even competent adults wrongfully think that they must give in to the interrogators bribes or believe the evidence, despite feeling to the contrary. Individuals place too much confidence in the system and end up closing the case with a false confession; they are never exonerated by the evidence and spend years in prison as result.
Thankfully, there is help like the Innocence Project that can help to free the innocent through the introduction of DNA or other forensic evidence. Such organizations can help the convicted free of charge, even in the toughest of cases and despite false confessions
Antonio Beaver. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/antonio-beaver/
Jonas, J., & Herr, D. (2020, January). The Trouble with Eyewitness Testimony: Toward a Model on Jujry Instruction on Witness Testimony. Retrieved March 4, 2020, from https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.proxy1.ncu.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=58f71c4e-7dba-4044-b00f-bda02d79c910@sessionmgr102
Our Client Jonathan Barr Celebrates his Birthday Today. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/jonathan-barr/
Patrick Brown. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/patrick-brown/
Stambor, Z. (2006, September). Can Psychology Prevent False Confessions? Retrieved March 4, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep06/confessions
© 2020 Stasha Corene Hall