November 22, 2021
Can you imagine that people make inexplicable false confessions to crimes they did not commit? I know this from painful personal experience. In the spring and summer of 1999, my adult autistic brother falsely admitted to committing a bank robbery under questioning, in the middle of the night, having been taken from his janitorial job. My brother was saved by the man who committed the crime who had been told by his arresting officers that he didn’t have to worry about one of the robberies because “they got someone else for that one.” The bank teller even picked him out of a lineup. You see, the system was on track to charge, try, convict and sentence my brother, who was clearly incapable of robbing a bank…but he had confessed. This is one of many reasons why I support Plush Dozier. His videotaped admission displays a wild-eyed young man who was admittedly intoxicated and who has a long and documented history of mental health problems. Although it was stated in court that his confession was insufficient to convict him, little was done to suggest that this confession could be false.
My family’s experience demonstrated that blaming someone for a crime was more important than seeking the truth, protecting an innocent person or investigating the probability that a man who had committed a series of bank robberies might have committed this one, too.
Why do people confess to things they did not do? According to an article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (Richard A. Leo, September, 2009), there are many reasons for this disturbing phenomenon. When investigators falsely identify an innocent person as a suspect, a series of errors follows that leads to false confession, such as interrogation that convinces the individual to construct a narrative falsely describing their conduct. Pressure to solve the crime can lead police to focus on a readily available subject. Psychological coercion takes the form of deprivations such as access to food, water or the bathroom, creating a sense in the subject that they must comply with police expectations. Threats and promises might be involved (“Just tell us what we want to know and then you can go home,” was stated to my brother, who was anxious about his job and not allowed to call his parents). Police are trained to believe that they can assess truthfulness or lying through their interrogation techniques, but this has been demonstrated to have little reliability (Bond CF, DePaulo BM: Accuracy of deception judgments. Pers Soc Psychol Rev 10:214–34, 2006).
Vulnerable subjects are susceptible to making false confessions due to impaired cognitive abilities, mental illness, poor communication skills, submissiveness to authority and suggestibility. All these elements were factors for my brother and Plush Dozier. Nevertheless, one study showed that of 125 proven false confessions, over 70% of the individuals involved were not developmentally or mentally impaired (Drizen and Leo, 2004), showing that this can happen to anyone. False confessions may be offered voluntarily, due to underlying psychological or psychiatric problems, pressure from an outside source or to protect another person, as I believe it was for Plush.
According to www.theappeal.org, 336 documented cases of exoneration involved a false confession, indicating that these wrongful admissions are not detected and screened out in the adjudication process. In the case of Willie Veasy, a jury convicted him of murder based on his false confession, despite clear evidence that he was at work at the time and nowhere near the crime scene. Over 27 years later, Mr. Veasy was exonerated. False confessions must be understood and considered when a jury is deciding the fate of an individual’s life. Reasonable doubt exists with suspicious confessions under extenuating circumstances and must be fully explored in the courtroom. This did not happen for Plush Dozier and we should all be asking why.