Criminal Justice reforms due to be considered in Texas this year could help prevent defendants making false confessions to police officers.
While it makes no sense to confess to a crime you didn’t commit, criminal defense lawyers often see cases in which people who are arrested are persuaded to confess by heavy handed interview techniques.
The case of Christopher Ochoa was recently reported in the Dallas Morning News. Ochoa made a confession in a rape-murder case at an Austin Pizza Hut in 1988.
“Ochoa not only buckled to pressure during hours of interrogation by police, he signed a detailed confession and stuck to the concocted story through a guilty plea and sentencing to life in prison,” reported the Dallas Morning News.
He confessed to the crime because he was threatened with a potential death sentence by cops and said his mother wouldn’t suffer the grief of losing her son.
Ochoa would still be incarcerated today had the real killer of Pizza Hut employee Nancy DePriest, not written to authorities, admitting guilt from his own prison cell.
DNA tests later proved Ochoa’s innocence.
Data compiled by the Innocence Project of New York suggests the issue of false confessions under pressure from police is more common than many of us may imagine. In its analysis of the hundreds of DNA-proven exonerations, nearly a quarter of them involved innocent defendants who confessed, wrongly incriminated themselves or pleaded guilty.
This year the state Legislature will have get the chance to enact SB 87, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, a bill which would require videotaping or audio taping of police interrogations of suspects in murders and other violent crimes. The bill would help defendants who made a false confession, if they later needed to clear their names. Officers may also be less likely to unfairly pressurize defendants into confessing to a crime if they know their techniques could be scrutinized in a court of law.
A number of other important criminal justice bills have been introduced in the 2013 legislative session. They include:
- HB 189, by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston. This bill makes inadmissible the use of accomplice testimony in death cases when the testimony was given in return for promises of leniency or special treatment.
- SB 91, by Ellis, would establish “uniform standards” for defense and prosecuting attorneys to share information before a criminal trial. A number of cases that have ended in exonerations have seen prosecutors withhold vital information that would have helped clear a defendant.
- SB 89, by Ellis, would create a state innocence commission. It would review wrongful conviction cases, which have been prevalent in Texas, particularly in the Dallas area, and help improve the overall criminal justice system.