What is an example of a case where the police obtain a false confession, and the conviction was eventually overturned, based on other evidence, such as DNA? What were the key investigation errors that may have allowed the suspect to be convicted upon this false confession?
When false confessions happen, they often are obtained because police have settled on a suspect. They then put a great deal of pressure on that suspect. At times, the suspect will then confess under duress. This is what happened in the case of Damon Thibodeaux.
In 1996, Thibodeaux’s step-cousin, Crystal Champagne, was strangled in Louisiana, near where they both lived. Thibodeaux was a suspect because of their family ties and because Crystal had apparently been sexually assaulted. He was interrogated for a long time (nine hours) and eventually confessed.
It appears that Thibodeaux’s confession came about because police zeroed in on him as a suspect and then worked to prove their theory instead of working to find the truth. They told Thibodeaux that he had failed a polygraph test. They interrogated him for those nine hours, not letting him eat or sleep. They asked him the same questions over and over. Eventually, Thibodeaux decided that they were never going to let him go and that he needed to confess to avoid the death penalty.
There was also evidence, other than the confession, that shows the police were trying to convict Thibodeaux because they were convinced he killed Champagne. For example, there was no clear evidence of sexual assault, but Thibodeaux confessed to raping her. The detectives decided that the activity of the maggots in Champagne’s corpse had destroyed evidence of the rape. There were also two eyewitnesses who said they had seen Thibodeaux in the area. However, it later came to light that they had already seen his picture in news accounts and could therefore have been biased. Finally, detectives ignored inconsistencies between Thibodeaux’s story and the facts of the case.
For all of these reasons, Thibodeaux was convicted of Champagne’s murder even though there was no physical evidence of his guilt.