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False confessions and ignored evidence in high-profile cases

Police officers in Virginia and around the country are often put under great pressure to make an arrest when the cases they investigate attract a lot of media attention. A study published in the Northeastern University Law Review suggests that this pressure results in detectives developing tunnel vision and ignoring potentially exculpatory evidence after they have identified a prime suspect. This was the conclusion that criminologists from Texas State University reached after studying 50 wrongful conviction cases.

One of the most worrying observations made by the researchers was the frequency with which detectives coerced false confessions from suspects they had become convinced were guilty. However, these findings are unlikely to come as a surprise to advocacy groups like the Innocence Project. The nonprofit group says that about one in three of the people they have helped to have exonerated were convicted of crimes they did not commit after being coerced into confessing.

The wrongful conviction study also reveals that police officers often change their theory of the crime instead of pursuing different avenues of investigation when evidence is discovered that seems to clear their prime suspect. This happened in a case involving a man who was sent to prison in 1990 after confessing to the murder of a 15-year-old girl. He was released from prison in 2006 when DNA evidence that the police dismissed during the initial investigation proved his innocence.

Innocent people who are questioned by police may believe that they do not need a lawyer, and detectives could encourage this kind of thinking by telling them that asking for one will make them look guilty. This is the first step on the road to a false confession. Experienced criminal defense attorneys would likely urge anybody who is taken to a police station for questioning to avail themselves of their Sixth Amendment right to legal representation before saying anything.

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