At 16, Huwe Burton confessed to killing his mother. He was still in shock from discovering her body when New York City police began to interrogate him. After hours of being threatened and cajoled, he told the police what they wanted to hear. He soon recanted, knowing he was innocent and hoping the justice system would clear him.
Burton was convicted of second-degree murder in 1991 and received a sentence of 15 years to life.
After 20 years in prison, he was released on parole, but he never could shake the stigma of the conviction. Attorneys from several organizations worked for more than a decade to clear him. They produced facts that contradicted the confession and showed evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. But for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, Burton’s confession outweighed all other evidence; after all, who would admit to a crime they did not commit? Finally, last summer Burton’s attorneys brought in Saul Kassin, a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who is one of the world’s leading experts on interrogation.
“I went in prepared to make a 15-minute presentation, but the attorneys started asking some really good questions,” Kassin says. “Before you knew it, we had a discussion that lasted almost 2 1/2 hours.”
Kassin explained that false confessions are not rare: More than a quarter of the 365 people exonerated in recent decades by the nonprofit Innocence Project had confessed to their alleged crime. Drawing on more than 30 years of research, Kassin told the legal team how standard interrogation techniques combine psychological pressures and escape hatches that can easily cause an innocent person to confess. He explained how young people are particularly vulnerable to confessing, especially when stressed, tired, or traumatized, as Burton was.
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