Monday, September 10, 2012

Giving a false confession under duress

Marty Tankleff before prison
Marty Tankleff was 17 when he discovered his adoptive parents bludgeoned and stabbed. His mother, Arlene, was dead and his father, Seymour, within an inch of his life.

Police brought Tankleff in for questioning, then charged him with murder of his mother and attempted murder of his father. The latter charge became murder when Seymour Tankleff died in a coma a month later. And it was all because of a false confession.

According to the Innocence Project, 25 percent of people who were convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence had given some sort of incriminating statement, such as a false confession. In Tankleff's case, Suffolk County, N.Y. detective K. James McCready secured a conviction with nothing more than such a statement.

A false confession? That's messed up!
McCready, who may have had a conflict of interest in the case, interrogated Tankleff for four hours. He used a tactic familiar to viewers of Law & Order by bluffing about the existence of evidence that proved Tankleff's guilt. Among other things, McCready told Tankleff that his father awoke from his coma and named him as the attacker.

It should be emphasized again that Tankleff was a 17-year-old boy going through a situation that would make many adults crack. He started doubting himself, and even suggested that he might have "blacked out" and committed the act.

According to psychologists, this reaction is a defense mechanism of the brain. By giving the police what they want - even if it's not true - the person being questioned hopes to escape from a traumatic situation. The fact that Tankleff was young made him particularly suggestible.

Unfortunately, this was all that it took to convict Tankleff of the crime. He missed out on the best years of his life because of poor police work and prosecutorial stubbornness. If it weren't for the persistence of his family, a private investigator and former cop, the pro bono work of his legal team, and even some publicity generated by actor James Gandolfini, he would have never left prison.

Fortunately, new witnesses came forward and new evidence emerged. A judge threw out Tankleff's conviction and special prosecutor Andrew Cuomo - now governor of New York - declined to retry the case.

Marty Tankleff after prison
Tankleff is free, and dedicating himself to preventing someone else from going through the same ordeal, though that won't give him 17 years of his life back. Sadly, his case is not an anomaly. The only lesson that one can take is to remember the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. If you find yourself accused of a crime that you did not commit, stay silent and insist on an attorney.

1 comment:

  1. This sad reality is covered extensively in a book titled "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)."