Who would confess to a crime they didn't commit? When it comes to the pressure of an interrogation room, many people would. There have been countless examples of false confessions in modern crime history, and many can be sourced to a few factors. In the case of George Stinney, being a young Black boy in the Jim Crow South made him an easy target for coercion and wrongful conviction. For Joe Arridy, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Stefan Kiszko, their false confessions were likely a result of mental disabilities and police manipulation.
In many cases, investigators lie to the person being interrogated, telling them they failed a polygraph test, such as Peter Reilly, a teenage boy who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his own mother. In one strange case, the person being interrogated was the one lying, confessing to a murder she didn't commit to get out of a bad relationship. At times these false confessions are obtained despite evidence showing the person interrogated couldn't have committed the act, such as in the case of Juan Rivera, whose own ankle monitor proved his alibi.
An overwhelming theme amongst cases of false confessions is that the alleged criminals are often young, impressionable, and are interrogated without a parent or lawyer present. Other wrongfully convicted people were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition to an innocent person being locked up, or even killed, coerced false confessions mean that the people who actually committed the crimes are still out there. Read on to learn more about 12 times people confessed to crimes they didn't commit.
Teenagers David McCallum And Willie Stuckey Quickly Recanted Their 1985 Murder Confessions, But It Was Too Late
In 1986, two 16-year-olds were convicted of the murder of a 20-year-old man, who was forced into his own car at gunpoint and subsequently killed. The man was taken hostage in Ozark Park, Queens, and his body was left in Aberdeen Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Both of the accused, David McCallum and William Stuckey, had allegedly confessed to the crime. They were both convicted to 25 years to life behind bars for kidnapping and murder. Quickly after their confession, the boys maintained their innocence and requested a retrial.
Upon closer inspection of the series of events leading to their arrest, it became apparent that something was wrong. During the police investigation, both boys were separated and told the other had confessed. They were also "force-fed evidence" according to Kenneth P. Thompson, a Brooklyn district attorney.
Among the inconsistencies was the fact that both boys said the crime happened in the evening, but the coroner's report claimed the death occurred at 3:15 pm. McCallum said there was one shot fired in his confession, but police reports said there were three. There was no physical evidence, fingerprints, or DNA to point to either McCallum or Stuckey.
Regardless of the substantial evidence that the boys were innocent, McCallum spent 28 years in prison before the convictions were vacated and he was released in 2014. Unfortunately, in 2001, Stuckey passed of a heart attack at the age of 31, so he never got to experience having his name cleared.
In response to Stuckey's death, on the day of the trial that found him innocent, McCallum said:
It is a bittersweet moment because I’m walking out alone. There’s someone else who’s supposed to be walking out with me... I’m really very happy but very sad at the same time.
Joe Arridy, ‘The Happiest Man On Death Row,’ Had An IQ Of 46
On the evening of August 15, 1936, Dorothy Drain's parents returned home to find their daughter murdered, killed by blunt force trauma to the head while she was sleeping. Her sister Barbara had also been attacked, but survived. Barbara said the attacker had sexually assaulted them, and police found two other women close to the Drain home who were assaulted that evening.
The victims testified that the attacker "looked Mexican," so police immediately began to investigate Mexican people in the town of Pueblo, CO.
They found Joe Arridy wandering around near the train tracks, and the police found him to be very agreeable. Arridy immediately confessed to the crime, but he also couldn't repeat back sentences longer than a few words and couldn't identify colors.
His parents were Syrian immigrants, and investigators believed the color of his skin matched the victims' descriptions. His parents were also first cousins, which could explain his mental disability. A few of his older siblings had passed young from health complications and his surviving brother was also mentally disabled.
During the trial, three psychiatrists testified to Arridy's mental disability and estimated his IQ to be 46, but he was still convicted and put on death row. While Arridy was being held by the police, they found the man who was likely the real offender: Frank Aguilar, who was identified immediately by Barbara Drain. He was also tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, but police still insisted that Aguilar and Arridy had worked as a team.
Arridy was held until his death in 1939. He spent his prison time playing with a toy train, seemingly unaware of his impending execution. Roy Best, his warden, said Arridy was “the happiest man who ever lived on death row.” When asked what his last meal would be, he asked for ice cream after giving his beloved train to a fellow inmate. Arridy was reportedly smiling all the way to the end, although Best was said to have cried.
Arridy wasn't pardoned for his wrongful conviction until 2011 by Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who said:
Pardoning Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.
Police Convinced Peter Reilly He Was Guilty By Telling Him He’d Failed A Polygraph Test
In 1974, Peter Reilly was convicted of the murder of his mother in Litchfield County, CT. The 18-year-old had returned home after a teen church meeting to find his 54-year-old mother murdered in her bed and placed five phone calls for help. When police arrived, Reilly and his friend Geoffrey Madow were the only people at the scene.
Police found Reilly's apparent lack of emotion suspicious, and he was immediately taken into custody overnight, then interrogated for 24 hours straight. The interrogation and polygraph test were all done without a lawyer present. After the grueling interrogation, Reilly confessed but confirmed later that he was exhausted, scared, and confused, and that the police had lied and told him he'd failed the polygraph test.
His friends and family rallied around him, raised money from their community, and posted the $50,000 bail bond. Reilly was released and sent home to finish his senior year of high school.
Regardless of his short release, on April 12, 1974, Reilly was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 to 16 years in prison. This caught national attention, including that of famed playwright Arthur Miller, who donated money to support his appeal.
In 1976, Reilly was granted a new trial thanks to new evidence: a fingerprint on the door of his home that implicated Timothy and Michael Parmalee, who had former issues with Reilly and his mother. There were also testimonies from people who saw Reilly out that evening driving in his mother's car.
On June 1, 1977, Reilly was cleared of all charges and released after Superior Court Judge Maurice J. Sponzo confirmed he had been a victim of coercion by the police. Reilly has since become an advocate for police interrogation reform.
After Being Interrogated Without His Parents, 14-Year-Old George Stinney Jr. Became The Youngest Person In Modern Times To Be Put To Death
In March 1944, two white girls, Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, were murdered in the small, segregated town of Alcolu, SC. The people in town claimed 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. and his little sister Amie Ruffner were the last to see the girls alive.
George was Black in the Jim Crow South, making him an easy target as a scapegoat for the crime. His parents were out of town and the police interrogated him without them or a lawyer present. He allegedly confessed, although there was no written record, and went to trial immediately.
The trial lasted two hours and the all-white jury only took 10 minutes to deliberate and find Stinney guilty, although there were no witnesses or evidence. They never heard an alibi, even though he apparently had one. George's younger sister was with him at the time, watching their family's cows graze, when she said the two girls rode up on their bikes. In a 2014 interview with WLTX-TV, Ruffner recalled:
They said, "Could you tell us where we could find some maypops?" We said, "No," and they went on about their business.
Wilford Hunter, George's cellmate, said in an official statement that George denied all the allegations, saying, "Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?"
On June 16, 1944, George was executed by the electric chair; the youngest person to get the death sentence in America since the 1800s. He was small enough that the straps didn't fit him properly and he had to sit on top of a book. George was finally exonerated in 2014 after a retrial by Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen. Amanda Sales, a child forensic psychiatrist testified:
It is my professional opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the confession given by George Stinney Jr. on or about March 24, 1944, is best characterized as a coerced, compliant, false confession. It is not reliable.
George's sister also said in her interview 70 years later:
[The police] were looking for someone to blame it on, so they used my brother as a scapegoat.
Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners Like Jeffrey Clark and Garr Keith Hardin Have Faced A Catch-22 At Parole Hearings
When it comes to those wrongfully accused of crimes, parole hearings can prove a difficult-to-navigate catch-22, as in the case of Jeffrey Clark and Garr Keith Hardin, who were prosecuted for murder in 1992.
Parole, or the request for conditional release of a convicted person, often requires expression of remorse, willingness to change, and an apology from the person asking for parole. For a wrongfully convicted person, maintaining their innocence can be seen by the parole board as a lack of remorse, and keep them wrongfully imprisoned longer. However, if they take accountability for a crime they didn't commit, their "confession" can hurt their chances of exoneration.
Clark and Hardin were 21 and 22 years old, respectively, when Hardin's girlfriend, Rhonda Sue Warford, was killed. The night of the murder, Warford had come home from a trip to the grocery store in Louisville, K, and told her mom about a concerning interaction she had had in the parking lot, where a strange man harassed her with romantic advances. She left home again later that evening and never returned. Days later, her body was found in a nearby county.
Police focused on Hardin, as he and Warford's relationship had been tumultuous. Warford's friends and family testified at the trial that Hardin and his friend Clark were practicing satanists, dragging Warford and her sister into their dark world. Warford's body was found with an inverted cross tattooed on her collarbone area, further bolstering this accusation.
Detective Mark Handy led the case, and had a reputation for closing cases by any means necessary. He identified "occult-related items" in the men's homes and claimed Hardin had admitted to sacrificing animals and wanting to sacrifice a human. Both men continuously denied involvement. Despite the lack of physical evidence, Hardin and Clark were both convicted of the homicide and were sentenced to 25 years to life.
It wasn't until December 2017 that the case was reinspected. Many of Detective Handy's cases were being reexamined, as they showed a pattern of coercive interrogation tactics to wrongfully convict people. With the help of the Innocence Project, the hairs found on Rhonda Warford's clothes were retested for DNA and matched to John Whitely, who had a history of violent crime and had actually confessed to Warford's murder in 1993.
The original rulings were overturned and Hardin and Clark were released after serving 22 years. Yet after their release, the prosecution brought additional charges of kidnapping and perjury against both men since at one point during his sentence, Hardin had admitted to the crime in an attempt to win parole.
In 2018, the case was fully dismissed once and for all. Judge Bruce Butler called the charges "vindictive" prosecution, while the Kentucky Supreme Court considered the statements to the parole board to be "insincere and contrived admissions... induced solely by the yearning to be free."
- Photo: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills / HBO
Jessie Misskelley Jr. Confessed After 12 Hours Of Interrogation, But Only Two 45-Minute Segments Were Recorded
In 1993, three second-grade boys were brutally murdered in the small town of West Memphis, AR. The crime was committed at the height of the Satanic Panic, leading the jury to believe it was a part of an occult ritual.
Police arrested three boys, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who was reported to have an IQ of 72, which indicates borderline intellectual functioning. After a month of investigation with no leads, police had begun focusing on the three teenage boys.
After they were unable to get the information they wanted from Echols and Baldwin, they began to focus on Misskelley. He was interrogated for 12 hours without permission from his parents and later admitted to feeling scared and confused throughout the interview. The police also stopped recording for a majority of the interrogation, only providing two 45-minute segments of the interview as evidence during the trial. In the clips they did provide, the police asked leading questions to Misskelley, indicating a contaminated confession.
Regardless of the lack of evidence and the fact that Misskelley recanted his confession immediately after the interrogation, the three boys were arrested. The Innocence Project, an organization formed in 1992 to exonerate wrongfully convicted people via DNA evidence, said:
The lawyers for the Three maintained that Misskelley’s confession was false, unreliable, and included all sorts of statements totally inconsistent with how the crime happened.
The evidence presented at trial included the boy's love of Metallica, doodles of pentagrams in school notebooks, and Damien Echols's interest in the practice of magic. Meanwhile, police ignored other leads - Christopher Byer's stepfather gave away a knife after the murders that had blood on it consistent with Christopher's. And a mysterious man had entered a Bojangles restaurant the night of the murders covered in blood, smearing blood all over the walls before vanishing. The blood collected from the incident was lost.
Echols and Baldwin were tried separately from Misskelley because he had confessed. Despite pressure, Misskelley refused to repeat his confession during the trial, insisting he had been coerced. Regardless, Misskelley and Baldwin were both sentenced to life, and Damien Echols was given the death sentence.
There were numerous appeals, documentaries were made in the defense of the West Memphis Three, and they even gained the support of Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, who visited Echols in prison and used his platform to spread information about their case. After 18 years in prison, Baldwin, Misskelley, and Echols were finally released after accepting an Alford plea, which allowed them to plead guilty to lesser charges while maintaining their innocence. While they had some reluctance about the plea, which leaves them without any financial compensation for their time in prison, Echols's execution date loomed, and the three accepted.
The murders of the three boys in West Memphis has never been solved. In 2021, Echols's lawyer, who was still searching for evidence from the crime scene, found that all the evidence collected had disappeared, been destroyed, or was lost by the police department.