May 26, 2012

Can you convict a man of murder when all you have is a confession?

There's nothing corroborating his statements. He just said he did it, 33 years ago, and he's a man with [perhaps?] mental illness. This is Pedro Hernandez, arrested in the Etan Patz case. People want to believe that at long last, we have the answer and a man to punish, but do we really know?
“You want to make sure he’s not a chronic confessor,” the [unnamed] detective said. Many books are about those who confessed to crimes they did not commit...

“You always go back for more detail, more detail, more detail,” [said  Vernon J. Geberth, a retired New York City police lieutenant commander in the Bronx]. “The confession is usually devoid of a lot of facts. They just want to get it out. Once it’s out, the barrier has been crossed.” The need to confess behind him, the suspect may relax. “Get him something to eat, something to drink. ‘By the way, did you speak to anybody? Did you go to work the next day, or take the day off?’ Important things.”...

The detective I spoke with said he would return to [the people who worked at the bodega in 1979] and find others. “What he said to them, when he said it, what details he gave. What was his demeanor? Has he ever admitted to doing anything else?... Corroboration is such a legal thing, it’s a thin requirement... The question is, do you get the jury to believe this is the real thing?”
The detective stresses getting a conviction, but we need to also worry about what is actually true.

41 comments:

DADvocate said...

The detective stresses getting a conviction, but we need to also worry about what is actually true.

Unfortunately, the truth, and justice, often takes a back seat to getting a conviction.

John Smith said...

No, there has to be significant corroborating independent evidence. Better one hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man is falsely convicted.

Unknown said...

If he is confessing, why do you need a jury since there will be no trial?

Ann Althouse said...

"If he is confessing, why do you need a jury since there will be no trial?"

Many people confess and then plead not guilty.

TenMile said...

From the Kansas Constitution:

Bill of Rights:

§ 10. Trial; defense of accused. In all prosecutions, the accused shall be allowed to
appear and defend in person, or by counsel; to demand the nature and cause of the
accusation against him; to meet the witness face to face, and to have compulsory
process to compel the attendance of the witnesses in his behalf, and a speedy public
trial by an impartial jury of the county or district in which the offense is alleged to
have been committed. No person shall be a witness against himself, or be twice put in
jeopardy for the same offense.

Synova said...

I'd heard once, and no idea if it is true, that some 90% of criminal convictions in Japan involve a confession.

I thought that was horrific, since people, anyone at all, can be made to confess.

We're bad enough with our plea bargain pressure... take this plea or risk the *sure* conviction that will be much much worse. But how would any government attain 90%?

A. Shmendrik said...

This feller maybe crazier than a shithouse rat.

Pogo said...

I'm surprised they made an announcement if the confession is all they have.

David said...

The comments to the original NYT article were full of people raising this issue. Problem is, for a crime this old, what else do you have? Apparently he was a suspect shortly after the crime but they lacked evidence. They lack the boy's body, which never was found. There is an unconfirmed (I think) rumor that he confessed the crime to family members some time in the past.

Crazy Bald Guy said...

It would be a shame if the guy is really just nuts and ends up being punished for someone else's crime.

Crazy Bald Guy said...

It would be a shame if the guy is really just nuts and ends up being punished for someone else's crime.

Jaske said...

Many people confess and then plead not guilty.

Many confess to crimes not commited.
http://althouse.blogspot.com/2012/05/former-high-school-football-standout.html

David said...

Unless the guy did something strikingly memorable, going back to his fellow employees of 30+ years ago is useless.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Seems like you could force someone else to confess, have them go to jail, then have the case closed.

edutcher said...

Maybe if the confession can't be broken...

Mark O said...

Great news. He also confessed to the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

bagoh20 said...

His confession is just one witness' testimony. Without something else corroborating, then it is hard to get past reasonable doubt, unless he's very convincing.

The other side of the question is who's rights are being violated if a person confesses knowing full well what the consequences are? Maybe the taxpayers would have a case that they should not pay for his incarceration, but I don't see how his rights are in question if he is sane and confesses.

The idea of a right is the right to have your preference respected, not that of the law. The law does not have rights of it's own above that, does it? If he is sane, and wants held accountable, then we are violating his rights by not convicting, as well as the right of the victims.

Crazy Bald Guy said...

This captcha is evil... I had to try three times to get my other comment approved.

ndspinelli said...

No body, no apparent corroboration. You cannot convict a person solely on the testimony of a co-defendant w/o some corroboration. If he pleads not guilty it could be very tough. But, nobody here knows all the evidence so we're all, to varying degrees, talking out of our asses.

Indigo Red said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Indigo Red said...

It's possible this is a hoax by a family that wants him in prison for economic and health reasons. In the last few years, several people have robbed banks and sat down to wait for police to arrest them just so they could be sentenced to prison for reason of health and economy. Easy enough to convince a man with mental problems and hallucinations to go along with a cockamamie story. Then there's the book deals and movie rights. Then again, the guy might be telling the truth, no one believes the story, DA can't prove anything and the guy walks. Without corroboration it will be hard to convict, but it's been done before.

S said...

If all I have to go on is a confession, I think I'm past reasonable doubt. But given a confession and a not guilty plea, I'm confused; I assume if I were on that jury, the defense attorney would try to sell me a story explaining the contradiction and he might or might not succeed. Given a confession and substantial evidence that the defendant was coerced and/or not fully sane (which I assume is the sort of story the defense attorney would be trying to sell), I'm in reasonable doubt territory.

But I'd definitely take a confession over an eyewitness. I'm usually not terribly sympathetic to protests against executions, but there was a guy executed in Georgia (I think) a few months ago who didn't seem to be tied to the crime except by some eyewitnesses who didn't know him who thought he looked like the guy they saw commit the murder. Him I would not have convicted.

Wally Kalbacken said...

Even better news. This is the guy who iced Judge Crater!

rhhardin said...

Big Milk Carton is involved.

The needs of the news biz and its free riders come first.

rhhardin said...

There was a Far Side (or Kliban) cartoon of space aliens eating breakfast, four arms and four eyes and so forth, with a distinguishable four arms four eyes creature on the side of a backgrounded milk carton.

Rob said...

There's corroborating evidence, and then there's "corroborating" evidence. Scientific evidence may be truly corroborative. On the other hand, what people who were at the bodega 33 years ago now claim to remember, after reading about the confession and after being prompted in an interview by detectives, is thin gruel indeed. If that qualifies as corroboration, then any requirement for corroboration is a mere elevation of form over substance.

CatherineM said...

His family seems to be supporting his confession. That he confessed before, but they didn't know who it was. His sister and a cousin made statements and they hoped his turning himself in would give the family closure.

The news media themselves keep bringing up reasons not to believe him, but his family does not. Perhaps all of the recent news of the investigation helped them put the pieces together? Is it just the news media doubting the police?

Mark O said...

This just in: He now confesses to the murder of Jimmy Hoffa.

Bender said...

As a matter of law, a mere confession, without more, is insufficient for a court to find a defendant guilty, rather, substantial corroborating independent evidence is needed.

X said...

you gotta be careful. for example, Henry Lee Lucas. no way that guy killed 600 or 350, but people were very credulous.

Bender said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bender said...

Here is a concise summary from a North Carolina case, State v. Joshua David Smith, 362 N.C. 583 (1980) --

Modern societies have also developed legal rules to help ensure that defendants are only punished for crimes they have actually committed.   To establish guilt in any criminal case, it is the duty of the State to show that “(a) the injury or harm constituting the crime occurred;  (b) this injury or harm was done in a criminal manner;  and (c) the defendant was the person who inflicted the injury or harm.”  1 Kenneth S. Broun et al., McCormick on Evidence § 147 at 600 (6th ed. 2006)[hereinafter 1 McCormick on Evidence].   It is generally acknowledged that the corpus delicti rule was developed to address the first two duties of the prosecuting authority.  Id.

The term corpus delicti literally means “body of the crime.”   Rollin M. Perkins & Ronald N. Boyce, Criminal Law at 140 (3d ed. 1982) [hereinafter Criminal Law]. Legally, the corpus delicti of an offense refers to the “fact of the specific loss or injury sustained”:  in homicide, the dead body;  in larceny, the missing property;  and in arson, the burnt residence.   7 John Henry Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law § 2072, at 524 (James J. Chadbourn rev., Little, Brown & Co. 1978) [hereinafter 7 Wigmore on Evidence] (emphasis omitted).   The corpus delicti rule establishes that “no criminal conviction can be based upon defendant's extrajudicial confession or admission, although otherwise admissible, unless there is other evidence tending to establish the corpus delicti.”   Criminal Law at 142 (emphasis omitted). . . .

Historically, the legal justifications supporting the corpus delicti rule have been threefold:  First, the rule protects against those shocking situations in which alleged murder victims turn up alive after their accused killer has been convicted and perhaps executed.  Parker, 315 N.C. at 233, 337 S.E.2d at 493 (citing Julian S. Millstein, Note, Confession Corroboration in New York:  A Replacement for the Corpus Delicti Rule, 46 Fordham L.Rev. 1205, 1205 (1978) [hereinafter Note, Confession Corroboration](citation omitted)).   Second, the rule ensures that confessions that are “ ‘erroneously reported or construed ․, involuntarily made ․, mistaken as to law or fact, or falsely volunteered by an insane or mentally disturbed individual’ ” cannot be used to falsely convict a defendant.  Id. (quoting Note, Confession Corroboration at 1205).   Finally, the rule is thought to promote good law enforcement practices because it requires thorough investigations of alleged crimes to ensure that justice is achieved and the innocent are vindicated.   Id. (citing Note, Confession Corroboration at 1205).

MadisonMan said...

Can I.

No.

Can a DA looking to be re-elected who wants to take on a high-profile case? Yes.

Wally Kalbacken said...

But see Gary Homberg. In fact, see Gary Homberg rot in Waupun.

From The Capital Times:

In 1989 former Stoughton businessman Gary Homberg was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in the 1983 disappearance of his wife, Ruth Ann, whose body has never been found.

I was in law school at UW at the time and we talked about this one a great deal. Homberg had a construction business, which had an incinerator. That may have been where the corpus went. There was also some suspicion about the foundation of a building that his firm was pouring right about the time his "old lady" went missing. He was proven at trial to have taken her car to the airport, parked it on long term parking, walked to the terminal and then called a cab for the ride home. He maintained that his wife told him she was "going to Las Vegas with some friends."

cassandra lite said...

In the first year after the Black Dahlia murder, more than 100 guys confessed--but none knew the one secret about Elizabeth Short that only a handful of detectives and medical examiners did. So without being able to cite that one unique fact that would ipso facto establish guilt, the cops had to let each of them walk. (She was pregnant.)

Carnifex said...

If he is crazy, and confessing to the police, why would it be inconceivable for him to be crazy, and confessing to family members?

A confession does not make a conviction, if it did, think how many Kennedy assassins are wandering around.

It would be nice for the family to have closure though...seems wrong to type it, but I hope that he did do it, for their sake.(convoluted thought...obviously it would be better if the child had not been murdered)

bagoh20 said...

Lets say we have a victim (body), and we have a defendant that is sane and confesses (to take responsibility), and we have a system that wants to close the case, and we have loved ones who need closure. Who is harmed if we convict and even execute the wrong guy. He wants us to, and if nobody finds out it's the wrong guy, everyone is happy, no? Even the real murderer is pleased with this outcome. If it's a very old case like this, then there is probably not even any concern for the real murderer being a danger if he's even alive. Is that justice if everyone is happy, even if it's not the right guy? Is punishment of the right guy necessary if we never know?

You see, this is one of the reasons we need a God with a Heaven and a Hell. God damned atheists are trying to stick us with half a system when we used to have a complete one.

Is there any scriptural reference to what happens to a wrongly accused and executed person? Does he get some kind of special dispensation at eternal judgement time?

Robert Cook said...

Actually, it appears to be a myth that Elizabeth Short was pregnant at the time of her murder, just as is what I had always believed was fact, namely, that she had a genital defect that would have made intercourse impossible for her.

PETER V. BELLA said...

If he pleads guilty he will be convicted.

William Tyroler said...

Don't know anything about NY law, but in Wis, the corroboration requirement is grounded in common, not statutory (and certainly not constitutional), law. In particular, the rule doesn't apply to confessions made to friends rather than the police. State v. Hauk, http://www.wicourts.gov/html/ca/01/01-1669.htm, ¶¶25-26. Hernandez, as I understand it, made incriminating statements to family members, so those statements (depending of course on the exact contours of NY law) might be enough to sink him, at least if they're detailed enough. Might be, too, that those statements themselves can be characterized as corroborative.

RigelDog said...

I don't see how you can get around the corpus problem in this case. Yes, you can prove circumstantially that a murder took place, but the cases where that has been done involve a lot of good circumstantial evidence; i.e., large quantity of blood, behavior by defendant before and after disappearance, etc. I would never charge nor convict on a mere confession without corroboration--which could take the form of such a detailed confession that only the killer would the details.