true crime

The Central Park Five were innocent when they confessed. This could happen to any of us.

Any of us could probably be forced to confess to a crime we didn’t commit if the right technique was used.

That might sound like a pretty big call, and you’re probably scoffing right now reading it.

As if you’d confess to a rape, sodomy, and brutal bashing, if you were completely innocent?

Well, five innocent young boys in New York City confessed to just that in 1989.

Their story is back in the spotlight thanks to the Netflix series When They See Us. 

But why did they confess? How were they coerced into thinking they did it?

It’s not as hard as you’d imagine.

Watch the trailer to When They See Us here. Post continues after video. 

Video by Netflix

The thing is, if someone is innocent they often think that innocence will shine through – and even if they are coerced to confess – they’re of the impression it will be proven during the investigation or trial that they are not guilty.

They weren’t at the crime scene. That will be proven. Won’t it?

Not in America.

“They [innocent suspects] don’t understand that once they confess an investigation is over,” Diane Sivasubramaniam, an Associate Professor in Psychological Sciences at Swinburne University told Mamamia.

In Australia, someone can’t be convicted of a crime with a confession alone, there has to be corroborating evidence.

But in many jurisdictions in America, you can.

The way they get these confessions is where the real problems lie. In North America especially, it’s very common to use the Reid technique in interrogation rooms. This is how the Central Park five were made to confess to the rape and attack of Trisha Meili.

central park five 2019
The Central Park Five in 2019. They were wrongly convicted of rape in 1990. Image: Getty.
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The technique has two main stages.

Firstly, there is a pre-interrogation behavioural interview. It's the job of an interviewer to determine if the person sitting in front of them is lying or telling the truth.

"They use the Behaviour Analysis Interview, which is a method to detect lies but it has no basis or verification from scientific literature," explained Sivasubramaniam.

"Fidgeting for example is supposed to be indicative of lying. Pauses in speech, saying 'um' and 'ah' a lot - they are all supposed to be indicative of lying.

"But there's absolutely no evidence to prove this," she said.

The thing is, these verbal and non verbal cues could also be signs of stress, or nervousness from sitting in a police station, but if the interviewer decides it's proof of guilt, you are funnelled into an interrogation stage.

In Australia, we rely on the UK's PEACE model which uses 'investigative interviewing'. It's an interview not an interrogation.

Once funnelled into the interrogation stage, a process of minimisation and maximisation is used to produce a confession under the Reid technique.

If you've ever watched an American crime show with a 'good cop bad cop' scenario, this is what they're doing.

"They are designed to maximise the suspect's anxiety about lying and minimise their anxiety about confessing. So to maximise you might emphasise that you have all of this evidence against them - If they don't confess that's going to play badly for them in court," Sivasubramaniam told Mamamia.

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"Minimise techniques are supposed to make them feel like if they confess everything will be alright. That's often where the good cop comes in," she added.

Combined, these techniques are supposed to shift the balance so a suspect's anxiety changes from lying to confessing. The problem is it can shift the balance in both the guilty and the innocent, particularly because these interrogations are usually hours long and wear a person down over time.

The suspect is made to feel like the only way out of that interrogation room, is submitting and confessing.

"Which is what we see in this case. These boys just got to the point where they wanted to get out," Sivasubramaniam said of the Central Park Five.

Confabulation is a memory error that further strengthens these false confessions making them look even more genuine.

In When They See Us, we see the boys tell the interrogators details about attacking the woman. What she was wearing, how she was dragged, where she was hit.

"Often what happens is the interrogator knows those details and feeds them to the suspect during the course of the interrogation. At the point where they've been broken down and they confess, they know exactly what the interrogator wants to hear in terms of details. So they just feed it back in their confession," Sivasubramaniam told Mamamia.

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When they see us trial
If someone is innocent, they think their innocence will shine through. Image: Netflix.

The issue muddies further when a case goes to trial.

As Sivasubramaniam explains, even if a jury is told that a confession was coerced they are unlikely to believe that.

"One factor that operates on juries is called the fundamental attribution error, " said Sivasubramaniam.

If a juror has never been in an interrogation, and never had the Reid technique used on them, they can't imagine a scenario where they'd ever confess to something they didn't do.

"If we see someone confessing to a crime we attribute that to their internal dispositional factors, we undervalue the external factors operating against that person forcing them to confess," explained Sivasubramaniam.

Let's throw in the fact that interrogators are allowed to lie about evidence in many jurisdictions in America, and interviews don't always have to be videotaped like here in Australia - what happens behind closed doors stays there.

As of January 2019, 362 innocent people convicted of crimes were exonerated in America with the help of The Innocence Project.

 

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The Central Park Five Tragedy Reframed in @Ava Mini-Series @whentheyseeus now out on @netflix. Where are the Central Park Five exonerees now? Korey Wise Time served: 12 years Played by: Jharrel Jerome Korey Wise was the oldest of the group wrongfully arrested in this case. At only 16, he was remanded to New York’s notorious Rikers Island, and after being wrongfully convicted, spent 12 years—the longest sentence among the group—of his life in prison. Today, Wise lives in New York City where he is an avid public speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2015, the Colorado Innocence Project was renamed the Korey Wise Innocence Project in recognition of his generous financial support.

A post shared by Innocence Project (@innocenceproject) on

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"It's unbelievable... and that's just the tip of the iceberg, they are just the cases where the crimes are serious enough to warrant attention from The Innocence Project, and where there is DNA evidence available for analysis" said Sivasubramaniam.

Here in Australia, while our criminal justice system is not perfect, it is far safer than in America.

It's much more difficult to establish a wrongful confession, however, if this miscarriage of justice occurs and it's also harder to exonerate someone here.

"Our courts are pretty watertight. It has to be a pretty concerted legal campaign to get something examined that way so that a court will throw out a conviction, "said Sivasubramaniam.

"We do have smaller innocence projects operating across Australia, but we don't have a large, unified mechanism [like The Innocence Project] to determine if there are systematic problems that are leading to wrongful convictions," she added.

Read More:

Netflix's When They See Us: The sickening true story of what happened to the Central Park Five.

While the 'Central Park Five' were in prison, the real rapist continued to attack women.

Trisha Meili is the 'Central Park jogger'. She wants her story to be one of hope.

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