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It's TV, Not a True 'Confession'

September 04, 2000|STEVEN A. DRIZIN and RICHARD A. LEO | Steven A. Drizin, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, teaches criminal law. Richard A. Leo is an assistant professor of criminology and psychology at UC Irvine

Court TV--the latest television network to enter the "reality-based" television sweepstakes--has announced its intention to air actual videotapes of killers and rapists confessing to crimes. No commentary and no context will accompany "Confessions," a weekly prime-time show set for Sunday nights, starting Sept. 10. Viewers who tune in will get nothing but the "real thing"--the killers baring their souls.

"Jurors get to see with their own eyes that the guilty confess to crimes, freely and voluntarily, without any coercion or duress," said Robert Morgenthau, the highly respected Manhattan district attorney who offered Court TV copies of videotaped confessions he had stockpiled at his office. Since then Court TV producers have been in a frenzy, contacting prosecutors and police departments throughout the country and reviewing thousands of hours of videotapes.

Court TV executives see "Confessions" as a breakthrough show, a ratings gang-buster, and have been shamelessly promoting it with the promise of providing a glimpse of "evil incarnate." Both Morgenthau and Court TV say these confessions will serve the greater good by enhancing the public's understanding of the criminal justice process.

On the contrary. In our combined work, we have reviewed hundreds of cases and thousands of hours of interrogations. Confessions, often the product of hours of grueling interrogations, cannot be neatly pigeon-holed into a half-hour time slot. Without tapes of these interrogations, confessions lose critical context. The interrogators, for example, often follow familiar scripts, sometimes appealing to a suspect's conscience ("do the decent thing" or "God will forgive you") or lying about evidence (falsely telling a suspect that his fingerprints were found at the crime scene). Sometimes police interrogators employ illegal tactics, such as promising leniency. In the worst cases, they use psychological and even physical torture to get confessions.

Police officers sometimes suggest to suspects less incriminating or exculpatory motives for committing the crime (such as the crime was merely an accident, an innocent mistake or an act of self-defense) and then feed them the details of the crime. If the interrogator chooses only to tape the suspect's confession, it is difficult to know whether the suspect is giving details of the crime that only the true perpetrator would know or just rehashing details supplied to him by police officers.

In other words, viewers must see the entire interrogations, which may last for hours, not just the final recap, to determine whether confessions are true or false. Anything less is certain to mislead and inflame the public--which may be good for Court TV's ratings or Morgenthau's conviction rate but does not serve the public's interest or the truth.

You can bet that district attorneys and police officers who are cooperating with the show won't be releasing tapes of interrogations where officers browbeat suspects or ignore their requests for lawyers. Nor will they give producers confessions of suspects that were tossed out of court by judges or that turned out to be false.

Our study of hundreds of disputed confession cases has led us to call for mandatory videotaping of interrogations. But videotaping the entire interrogation will only serve the truth-seeking function of the justice system. Law enforcement officers in Minnesota and Alaska, and in Britain, have been taping interrogations for years and most have come not only to accept the practice, but to endorse it.

With so much money involved in promotion, it is unlikely that the format of "Confessions" will change soon or that the show's catchy title will be renamed "Interrogations." But until Court TV makes these changes, viewers should not take seriously the network's claim that "Confessions" is reality TV.

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