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Promising a Handicapped
Teenager He Can Go Home if He Confesses to Double Murder

Robert Davis was a mentally handicapped 18-year-old that was intensely interrogated from 1 o’clock in the morning until 6:30 a.m. After being up for nearly 24 hours straight, stressed, and at his breaking point, he confessed to double murder. Why did he confess to double murder? He wanted to go home. The exchange that led to this absurd result became the center point of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode on confessions. The officer who should have known how dangerous it was to lie and manipulate to a mentally handicapped teenager, suggested that he could go home if he confessed. Immediately, Robert confessed. He then asked if he could go home. The officer said “no”. And Robert became upset, “then why I am lying to you about this?” The officer insisted that when he confessed, he was telling the truth. Robert told him, “I am lying full front to your face.” (speaking of his induced confession). Despite the fact that Robert had immediately retracted the lie, it didn’t matter. It was too late. Robert Davis served 13 years in prison before he was finally exonerated.

The High Rates of False Confessions

To say that confessions have a great weight in our criminal justice system would be an understatement. Prominent legal scholar Charles McCormick famously said, “the introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court superfluous.” Most people have a hard time understanding how a person could possibly falsely confess to a crime. But what people don’t realize is how intense the questioning can be and how susceptible human beings can be to social pressures. 12% of wrongful convictions come from false confessions. And the added factors of cognitive difficulties or the interrogated person being a juvenile add to the chances of a false confession. A staggering 38% of wrongful convictions of juveniles come from false confessions.

Takeaways for the Falsely Accused

So, how do you avoid being convicted for falsely confessing? First, if you are accused of a crime, do not talk to the police without a lawyer present. But if you’re in the position of having already falsely confessed, you want a lawyer who will be able to vigorously advocate on your behalf to demonstrate the coercive circumstances you were interrogated under if your circumstances were coercive. If you have the resources, hiring an expert witness who can explain how false confessions happen may be in your best interest. You want to provide as much as context as possible for the circumstances that you confessed under. Having a bright light shined in your face at a police station in the wee hours of the night is a far different situation than confessing while having a coffee break at work during the middle of the day. You can’t just assume a judge or jury is going to take that into account naturally. It takes great effort and skill to reframe things in a way for your audience to truly appreciate the situation. 

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Peter Lindstrom, Esq.

Founder of Subzero Criminal Defense

I practice exclusively in the state of Minnesota. If you are falsely accused in Minnesota, contact me for a consultation. If you are falsely accused in another state or country, contact a qualified attorney in your jurisdiction. 

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