November 2, 2006
When news broke John Mark Karr lied about killing Jon Benet Ramsey, many wondered what would make someone falsely confess to such a brutal crime? Yet defense experts say false confessions happen more often than you think.
“When the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, there were 600 false confessions,” said Charlottesville Defense Attorney Steven Rosenfield.
Some people falsely confess for fame, while others confess to protect the real criminal. Former UVa honor student Jens Soering said that's what he was doing when he told police he killed his girlfriend Elizabeth Haysom's parents in 1985.
“In some sort of very teenaged part of my mind I saw myself basically being the hero for my girlfriend,” Soering told us.
That is until prospectors threatened the death penalty then he recanted his confession.
That's another reason defense attorneys say people falsely confess, is to avoid execution or life sentences.
Attorney Steven Rosenfeild said that's what his client Robert Davis did. Davis confessed to killing a Crozet mom and her infant son after a long night of interrogation.
“Robert pleaded and pleaded [with investigators] to be given a chance to sleep. 'Take me to jail so I can get some rest.' The interrogation continued and Robert gave a confession of facts, some of which were fed by [an] interrogating police officer,” said Rosenfield.
Another one of Rosenfield's client's, Earl Washington Jr., falsely confessed to the 1982 rape and murder of a Culpeper woman.
“Mentally retarded people are extremely adept at picking up body language and guessing correctly at what you want to hear,” said Attorney Gail Starling Marshall.
Couple that with a certain amount of police pressure and, “Earl basically regurgitated what police had fed him. Earl knew no facts of this murder in Culpeper because he wasn't there,” Rosenfield explained.
Gail Starling Marshall was the Virginia Deputy Attorney General who reviewed Washington’s case for the state, and the first prosecutor to believe him innocent.
“I became convinced that he did not do it,” said Marshall.
Washington came within hours of being executed and DNA evidence proved he did not do it.
According to studies, one half of one percent of all people found guilty have made a false confession.
“On the surface it appears to be a small number, but when you multiply that by the tens of thousands who are found guilty every year across America you are looking at thousands of innocent people who falsely confess who are in prison in Virginia and elsewhere,” said Rosenfield.
Earl Washington spent 19 years in prison. Jen Seoring is serving two life sentences. Robert Davis is serving 23 years in prison. Of these three men, only Washington has been cleared. Prosecutors believe the other two men are guilty as charged.