“You’re right. I was there.”
These are the phrases used by at least four murder suspects whose interrogations were performed by New York homicide detective Louis Scarcella. Does it seem suspicious that four different suspects in four completely cases used the exact same phrases in their confessions to one detective?
Defense lawyers for these suspects as well as the Brooklyn district attorney’s office thought so, too, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
The suspiciously similar wording of these confessions has led defense lawyers and the Brooklyn D.A. to question the validity of these confessions. The Conviction Integrity Unit has reopened all of Scarcella’s trial convictions—50 cases—in an effort to determine if the confessions that sent several men to prison for decades were falsified.
David Ranta, exonerated after spending two decades in prison, argued that he never gave the confession that began with “I was there.”
Jabbar Washington, currently serving time, testified at his trial that Scarcella gave him a script for his confession and forced him to sign it. Jabbar had an alibi for the crime of which he was convicted, and witnesses were unable to identify him—which left his confession as the cornerstone of the case against him.
According to The New York Times, “[I]t is not uncommon for confessions to include traces of the detective’s speech, particularly law enforcement jargon the suspect was unlikely to have used without prompting. In addition, sometimes a detective will prompt a person to admit being present at the crime scene, while still playing down the role in the crime.” The latter technique, called “minimizing,” has been thought to contribute to false confessions.
You might be wondering why anyone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit. It seems absurd! But studies have proven that the completely innocent will confess to crimes if the circumstances are right. The New York Times reports that innocent suspects might confess if they feel threatened—in order to stop the abuse—or if they are led to believe that if they cooperate, they will be let go. Suspects who are drunk or high, children, and the mentally handicapped are particularly susceptible to giving false confessions.
Law enforcement is permitted to pretend to have evidence linking their suspect to a crime, which can contribute to false confessions. “In experiments and interrogation rooms, adults who are told convincing fictions have become susceptible to memories of things that never happened…they are tricked by phony evidence into accepting their own fabrications of guilt – an ‘internalized false confession,’” reports The New York Times.
It is particularly egregious when law enforcement, which is trusted by the public to protect and serve, commit an injustice. And unfortunately, as the Scarcella investigation shows, it is not as rare as the public would hope.