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Authorities must be wary of false confessions

LaWandCarbNicole Harris WandHarris after Nicole was released from Dwight Correctional Center. Monday February 25 2013 | Sun-Times Library

LaWanda Carbin, Nicole Harris and Wanda Harris after Nicole was released from Dwight Correctional Center. Monday, February 25, 2013 | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: February 10, 2014 8:13PM

The risk that innocent people will wind up in prison because of false confessions remains a serious problem, particularly in Illinois.

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint program of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, reported last week that across the nation exonerations of those wrongly convicted of a crime increased to a record 87 in 2013, and that 17 percent of the exonerees had pleaded guilty to a crime they did not commit.

Until recent years, most people had no idea how easily interrogators can persuade innocent people to admit to crimes or how frequently it happens. Often, the innocent suspects plead to a lesser charge to avoid risk of being convicted of a more serious crime.

By itself, the increase in exonerations is not bad — it indicates authorities are becoming more willing to review cases in which there might have been mistakes — but it remains a wake-up call for anyone who doesn’t want to see innocent people sent to prison. Illinois, with nine, had the second-highest number of exonerations. Texas had the most, with 13.

But Illinois continues to lead the nation in exonerations in false-confession cases. From 1989 through 2013, 46 Illinois defendants have confessed falsely, compared with 21 in New York, seven in Texas and five in California. Those 46 cases account for nearly 30 percent of all exonerations nationally for false confessions.

One Illinois case cited in the report was that of Nicole Harris, 23, who was convicted in 2005 of murdering her 4-year-old son after he was found with an elastic bedsheet cord around his neck. The Registry said Chicago police coerced Ms. Harris by pushing her, threatening her, denying her food and water, and withholding access to a bathroom. After 27 hours, Harris confessed to strangling her son and she was sentenced to 30 years.

Her conviction was overturned in 2012, and a federal appeals court said the confession was “essentially the only evidence against her” but that there “many reasons” to question its validity. She was freed last year.

In the past, authorities have tended to treat a confession as all that’s needed to support a conviction. Illinois’ experience shows that everyone in the criminal justice system must guard against placing too much weight on confessions that are not supported by other evidence.

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