Understanding False Confessions: Introduction

Winston Smith

“Because it is my name. Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I lie and sign myself to lies. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang. How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name.”

Arthur Miller, The Crucible

On October 3, 1984, a 15-year-old high school student named Kristina Hickey went missing after a choir performance (Possley 2015). Two days later her body was found, raped and stabbed, behind a shopping mall (ibid). On November 30, 1985, police brought Christopher Abernathy, an 18-year-old “high school dropout who has been classified as learning disabled,” in for questioning (ibid). This was a result of an acquaintance of Abernathy by the name of Allan Dennis who told police that Abernathy had admitted to killing Kristina Hickey several months ago (ibid). Abernathy, after being interrogated for over 40 hours, signed a confession that he had raped and killed Hickey (ibid). Immediately after signing the confession “Abernathy recanted the confession and said he signed the statement because police told him he could go home to his mother if he did (ibid).” The case proceeded, with the testimony of Dennis and the signed confession by Abernathy as key pieces of evidence, while there was no physical or forensic evidence that could connect Abernathy to the crime (ibid). Abernathy was convicted of “first degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and armed robbery” but luckily for Abernathy he was a minor when the crime took place and was unable to receive the death penalty, rather, he was given life in prison without parole (ibid). Only on February 11, 2015 were the charges against Abernathy vacated as a result of DNA evidence and he was released from prison, serving a total of 28 years (ibid). During the court proceeding vacating the charges, Abernathy stated “‘I’m scared…It’s just scary to be out, ‘cause that’s all I know’ (Hinkel et al 2015).”

Christopher Abernathy’s story is not uncommon, even for his home of Cook County Illinois, where there have been over “100 apparent wrongful convictions exposed…in the last 25 years (ibid).” Abernathy’s experience illustrates an all too common occurrence in our criminal justice system, an individual being put under enormous stress succumbing to interrogation tactics and producing a false confession. Abernathy is part of a growing group of DNA exonerated individuals that were convicted, at least in part, by a false confession. For many it is difficult to understand why someone would confess to something they did not do. If they were in an interrogation surely they would not say they did something they did not do? Christopher Abernathy was a victim of an all too common phenomena in our criminal justice system; the false confession.  

Over the next few weeks, in our new series “Understanding False Confessions,” I will explore the topic of false confessions to try to better understand why they happen.  I will investigate ways in which confessions are elicited from individuals, analyze the various interview and interrogation tactics conducted, and identify alternative systems to determine a viable solution to the problem of false confessions. Please check back soon for the next installation in our series.

Photo Credit: Getty Images 

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