False Confessions, Wrongful Convictions

Daniel Andersen, center, with his lawyers Megan Crane and Joshua Tepfer at the Cook County Criminal Courts building. Crane is holding the court’s order vacating Andersen’s conviction.

Great news to report: Daniel Andersen’s convictions for rape and murder were just overturned by an Illinois court. Daniel spent 27½ years in prison for these crimes  he did not commit, and compelling DNA evidence now supports his innocence claim. But how did the wrongful conviction happen? Well, for starters, he was convicted back when DNA testing wasn’t as informative as it is now. Oh, and also, Daniel gave a false confession to the crimes.

You’re probably thinking why would he confess to rape and murder if he was innocent? It’s easy to sit in on your couch, imagine being interrogated, and think, “If you didn’t commit the crime, there’s just no way you’d confess to it.” Right? Wrong. Here’s Daniel’s story…

At the time of the false confession, Daniel was 19 years old. His childhood friend had been found stabbed to death a few days earlier, and he had been drinking heavily for almost two days, with almost no sleep. A police officer friend of Daniel’s mother convinced her to sign a disorderly conduct complaint against him so that the officers could bring the teen into the station and “scare him straight” from drinking and acting rowdy. But once the police got Daniel in custody, they began interrogating him about his friend’s rape/murder. The police had found a knife a block away from the murder scene that they thought was the murder weapon. By the time the interrogation hit the 16 hour mark(!), Daniel was pretty incoherent (seriously…he was rambling something about how he and the lead detective were going to go on his boat and go sailing). During this babble, Daniel agreed to the police’s theory that he used the knife and committed the murder. Can you imagine how a completely disoriented, exhausted teenager might have finally just agreed to the police’s theory, if only to get the interminable interrogation to stop?

Of course, DNA testing has now proven that the knife had nothing at all to do with the murder. Additionally, DNA testing now shows that the victim had the DNA profiles of two males (who were not Daniel) under her fingernails, remnants from fighting off her assailants.  So Daniel’s “confession” was false.

With DNA evidence being used to prove innocence claims around the country, we have learned that more than 1 out of 4 of the exonerated, wrongfully convicted people made a false confession or incriminating statement. Some of the false confession cases had a pretty obvious motivator. Police abuse – either actual violence or threats of violence – has been known to prompt many a false confession (especially in Chicago). Those false confessions make sense to us, as a simple matter of self-preservation. But what about all of the false confessions given without obvious physical abuse by the police officers? Most are the result of more subtle forms of manipulation, but they’re often still about self-preservation:  if you just confess, you can go home; tell us you did it, and we can work out a deal for you; we already have evidence proving you did it, so if you keep denying it, that will just make things worse for you; we know you didn’t mean to do it, so if you just admit it, we can help you figure out how to explain it away. At some point, these sorts of offers seem tempting. Add to the mix juveniles or mentally limited suspects who are even more susceptible to these tactics. Or traumatized people whose loved ones have just died.

The bottom line is that police-induced false confessions happen far more than you might think. And we at Loevy & Loevy are happy for Daniel Andersen that the court has overturned his conviction – it’s been a long time coming. We are also proud to represent our exonerated clients who have had the courage and strength to sue the officers who caused their wrongful convictions. Police interrogation methods must change, and we will continue to fight until they do.


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