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.