Palmer George & Taylor PLLC

False criminal confessions: troubling and perplexing

His research and less-than-salutary revelations regarding police interrogation tactics that sometimes elicit false confessions from individuals who are actually innocent of any criminal wrongdoing certainly didn't add to his number of friends in law enforcement.

Rather, they garnered him the unflattering sobriquet of "Benedict Trainum."

Former detective James Trainum, who spent 17 years as a criminal investigator for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., reacts to that tag with mixed feelings. It certainly bothers him that some ex-brethren view him as a turncoat, but, at the same time, the depiction underscores his commitment to truth in police work.

And, as a recent Washington Post report indicates, there is ample reason to appreciate his efforts to spotlight the disturbing problems and implications linked with false criminal confessions.

Consider this, which should readily resonate across the country, including in Idaho, where Palmer George & Taylor PLLC attorneys proudly play a key role in the justice system by providing diligent legal representation to individuals accused of crimes: According to a database that collects information on wrongful convictions, fully 12% of such outcomes resulted following a false confession.

How can such a thing occur and, moreover, with some degree of regularity?

Trainum points squarely to "the box," that is, the interrogation room, where he says investigators sometimes engage in tactics more closely focused upon obtaining confessions than truth.

"Law enforcement doesn't want you in that room," he says.

Although strategies differ, the book Trainum has written chronicles a general game plan and recipe that can lead to an individual ultimately just giving up and offering personally damning information that really isn't true. Fatigue is a factor. Fear clouds judgment. Intimidation and psychological manipulation can lead to "a bad cost-benefit analysis."

Trainum says that all police interrogations should be videotaped, which is not the case. He also wants to see judges look more closely into confessions, which he says they typically do not do, focusing instead on the more narrow issue of admissibility.

Trainum hopes that reform will take place in a material way and that the heavy workload he now has as a defense consultant might actually wither away.

"I want to be put out of business," he says.

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