Do you have to be mentally stable in order to confess to a crime? It’s a question that is debated time and again in our criminal justice system. Can a person with mental illness give a credible confession, or do police easily manipulate them? In the case of Douglas Warney, it was the latter.
After 12 hours of interrogations, Warney finally confessed to a murder he did not commit, providing chilling details of the crime. Prosecutors used this damning confession to convict Warney. Police and prosecutors completely dismissed Warney’s history of mental illness. After serving more then nine years in prison, DNA evidence cleared Warney of the murder he confessed to committing.
The Innocence Project is an organization that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons. They have helped exonerate more then 300 wrongfully convicted persons so far. In cases where one has implicated themself falsely, 30 to 40 percent were mentally ill or mentally disabled. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, says there’s a much higher incidence of false confessions among individuals who have a history of mental illness. In the Warney case, an appeals judge wrote that the wrongful conviction pointed “strongly to the conclusion that the police took advantage of Warney’s mental frailties to manipulate him into giving a confession.”
Many states have now passed laws requiring police to videotape entire interviews. These recordings can show how an investigator may have manipulated a suspect into a confession, whether it was done on purpose, or inadvertently by feeding details of the crime. According to the law, confessions must be voluntary. Without a full record of the interrogation, defense attorneys and juries cannot see how a confession came about, if a confession was truly voluntary, or if police took advantage of a mentally impaired suspect.