Mimesis Law
20 October 2021

Anatomy of a False Confession

Sept. 30, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Jamie Lee Peterson was released from prison last year after having served seventeen years for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. He just filed a lawsuit against the people who made him confess:

A DNA comparison showed unequivocally that someone other than Jamie had sexually assaulted the victim. None of that stopped the investigators, however, who plowed ahead, concocting and coercing from Jamie a wild and unsupported theory involving two perpetrators.

Usually, a confession is powerful enough to make prosecutors fight until the bitter end. In the beginning, that looked like exactly what prosecutors intended to do in Peterson’s case:

At the time of the killing, DNA testing excluded Peterson as the source of DNA found on the victim’s body, but the prosecution argued that a smaller sample, which couldn’t be analyzed, belonged to Peterson.

“Jamie disavowed his confession after two interrogations and again before trial,” Chicago attorney Gretchen Helfrich wrote in the lawsuit, filed Monday, Sept. 28, in U.S. District Court.

The confirmation biases of police and prosecutors can be pretty remarkable. Indeed, with a confession in hand, few things are capable of changing their minds. Had there been a dozen different DNA samples, none of which belonged to Peterson, many cops would’ve just added a dozen new people to their Peterson conspiracy theory. Had the sample belonged to a known serial killer convicted of nearly identical crimes in the past, they would’ve sooner investigated and charged Peterson as an accomplice to the real killer’s other crimes rather than consider they might have been wrong and he might be innocent.

The weight given to confessions is even more disturbing considering the way police sometimes obtain them. Peterson’s is a textbook example of the sort of situation that results in a false confession:

In 1997, Peterson, described in court records as a “brain-damaged man who suffers from mental illness,” was jailed on an unrelated charge when an inmate told police that Peterson made incriminating statements about the crime.

Simply being near police officers makes plenty of ordinary people crack under pressure when they’ve done nothing wrong. Most people desperately want to please authority figures, and they’re understandably fearful of police. Being in custody and interrogated by officers, it gets even worse. Being in custody on another charge, presumably having felt some of the immense weight and maybe had a peek into the unfairness of the criminal justice system first hand, compounds that. Peterson’s brain damage and mental illness were no doubt icing on the cake. The situation was ripe for abuse.

When police approached Peterson, he denied involvement and underwent a polygraph examination. He was told he failed twice and asked for a third test but none of the tests results were provided to his defense attorney, the lawsuit said.

An investigator allegedly told Peterson “that if he confessed to the murder, he would definitely be sent to a psychiatric hospital – where Jamie desperately wanted to go – not to prison.”

Less aggressive techniques could’ve probably gotten a false confession from someone like Peterson in the same situation. What police did to Peterson could’ve gotten almost anyone to confess.

They led him to believe he’d failed a polygraph test. Peterson probably thought it was foolproof, concrete evidence of guilt. Many smart people so blindly trust seemingly scientific things like a polygraph that they would falsely confess to mitigate what they see as the inevitability of a false conviction. If it’s going to result in a conviction no matter what, why not try to paint yourself in a little bit better light, right? I’m sure the police didn’t mention to Peterson that the results of the tests were inadmissible. There probably weren’t any failing test results in the first place. Regardless, authority figures confronted Peterson with powerful, damning evidence of his guilt. Given his mental condition, he might’ve even doubted himself whether he did it or not.

The police doubled down with their lies by suggesting he would go to a psychiatric hospital rather than prison if he confessed. It’s obviously false, as Peterson isn’t suing after wrongfully having spent seventeen years in a hospital getting treatment. Given that the confession was based on an impossible promise made to a mentally ill man, it would be hard to believe that Peterson’s statements were anything but coerced. Of course, it’s still good enough to pass constitutional muster in plenty of jurisdictions. All the officers had to do was feed him what he needed to say and the prosecutors’ case would be ready to go:

Police told him that he was guilty but blocked out the crime. He eventually said he must have committed the crime but blocked it out, the lawsuit said.

Police provided Peterson with case facts that only the culprit would know, the lawsuit said.

Now that Peterson is cleared and out of custody, it’s easy to see what went wrong. Unfortunately, who knows how many people just like Peterson confessed under similar circumstances but lack the DNA evidence it seems to take for anyone to care. I would say Peterson’s situation and the ensuing lawsuit might be able to change things, but one big factor makes me less than optimistic:

State Department of Corrections records showed that Peterson was sentenced in 1997 to nine to 15 years for third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a person 13 to 15 years old. That sentence was discharged in October 2009, records showed.

Unless he happened to have been wrongfully convicted in his other case too, Peterson probably isn’t going to make much of poster child. The fact that he would’ve done most of his seventeen years in another case anyway probably affects his potential damages in his civil case as well, thus making it less likely his is going to be the best case to make a big financial statement against the people responsible for his wrongful conviction. In the end, Peterson’s case probably isn’t going to change the world, but it certainly makes for an interesting example of the sort of factors that lead to a false confession.

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