“Confession is the most powerful type of evidence, more powerful than eyewitness testimony, because who but a guilty person would ever confess to a crime? The truth is, many innocent people do confess,” says Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic in New York City that represents wrongly convicted people.
Juveniles and the mentally disabled are the most prone to giving false confessions, he says, but “ordinary people” are also susceptible if the police believe they have the right suspect and create a threatening enough environment to get an admission of guilt.
News that Milke would be allowed to leave prison pending retrial coincided with reports that the city of Chicago is paying out another $12 million stemming from the ongoing police torture saga involving Jon Burge, a former Chicago police commander who allegedly led a secret unit that is said to have coerced confessions from almost 200 suspects from 1972 to 1991.
Physical torture is “a major factor in giving a false confession,” says Leonard Cavise, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a member of the state commission against torture that reviews cases related to police misconduct.
“What we saw in Chicago with the Burge case is an egregious example of what goes on around the country,” he says. “Usually you don’t see that concentration of torturers on a city’s police force, but individualized torturers exist in other places.”