Mental Issues and False Confession


The court room was still and quiet as Douglas Warney described in horrific detail a murder that he was confessing to.

The only hang-up? Warney was completely innocent. He had been nowhere near the crime as it happened, and the fact that he believed he was was merely a tragic manifestation of his mental instability, and how forceful the prosecutors were being.

That case, and another one happening now involving the disappearance of a 6-year-old boy, underscore the importance of mental health during interrogations and confessions.

In the average citizen’s eye, when someone charged with a crime confesses and pleads guilty, that is an admission of undeniable guilt. It is the person saying that they committed the crime, and are ready to face up to their punishments.

The truth, however, is far more complex. Individuals with a history of mental illness are very often impressionable and open to suggestions while being interrogated. According to the co-director of the Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld, ” there is no question that there’s a much higher incidence of people falsely saying, quote, I did it, unquote, among individuals who have a history of mental illness.”

The Innocence Project has been working for years, using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions, and of the more-than-300 individuals whose names they have cleared, 25% of them had “confessed” to the crimes. Of those who had confessed, Neufeld states that between 30% and 40% of them had a history of mental illness, and even related disabilities.

The hard part is proving innocence after an individual has falsely confessed. Imagine the following scenario: A mentally ill individual is being held in a stressful interrogation room, having the details of a brutal murder shouted at them by angry officers. The individual, in a confused state of mind, begins to internalize these details, and even begins to believe that they were in fact present during the murder. When they go to trial later, and confess in brutal detail, the chance that a jury would even entertain the notion of mental illness is completely nil.

Mental illness can be hard to prove, especially during the flurry of criminal proceedings, but cases and situations such as these are reasons why more and more states are requiring all police interrogations to be fully recorded, with both audio and video. By law, confessions must be entirely voluntary, and now that there will be documented proof of any coercions and feeding-of-information to suspects, hopefully the more mentally-impressionable individuals among us will go free, instead of finding themselves locked in a cold cell for years, for a crime they didn’t commit.


Posted in Mental Health Defenses |

Arrested as a Man, Sentenced as a Woman


An unusual trial wrapped up in Florida earlier this month. Harold Seymore, charged with sexually assaulting a woman in 2005, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, plus 10 years of probation. So what made this trial different? Seymore, a man at the time of his 2005 arrest, faced jurors wearing a dress. After struggling with gender identification issues his whole life, Seymore slowly transitioned to a woman over the nearly 10 year period between arrest and sentencing.

Seymore’s conviction took nearly 10 years because Seymore faces serious mental health issues. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features and hallucinations. Not surprisingly, these struggles made it difficult for her to work with an attorney and prepare a defense. Between her arrest and conviction, Seymore was sent to state psychiatric facilities four times by judges who deemed her mentally incompetent.

During stints in jail, Seymore was always housed in a single person cell, away from the male inmates. Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, said, “Transgender women are in extreme danger in male prisons. There is a very high rate of violence, including sexual violence. Often, prison officials resort to special housing units, which are nothing more than solitary confinement. It can be extremely psychologically damaging.”

Indeed, Seymore confirmed that her days in prison were very isolating. “23 hours a day in solitary. I got the yard to myself. I have to take showers by myself.”

So how would a case like Seymore’s be handled in Arizona? How are transgender inmates treated here? It’s hard to say. Arizona is one of the few states that do not comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was implemented in 2012. In general, only transgender inmates that have undergone genital surgery are housed according to their reassigned sex. Transgender inmates are often targets of violence, so “protective custody” measures such as solitary confinement may be used. But, as Margie Diddams of the Arcoiris Liberation Team points out: “There isn’t a safe place in detention for transgender detainees.”

To read more about the Seymore trial, click here.

Posted in Mental Health Defenses, Sex Crimes |