Thursday, June 6, 2013

A DNA-swab success story reveals a terrible truth

As I mentioned the other day, the Supreme Court has ratified the practice of taking a DNA sample from all people accused of "serious crimes." Here in Illinois, Cook County was waiting for the Court's decision to implement this very practice. But officials in Virginia did not wait, and this has apparently led to the freeing of an innocent man in Lake County, Illinois:
Jerry Hobbs had been sitting in Lake County Jail for almost five years awaiting trial for the slayings of his daughter and her friend when a man was arrested on unrelated felony charges in Virginia, a pioneer of testing suspects upon arrest rather than waiting for a conviction.
A DNA sample was taken from the man, Jorge Torrez, and it went into a national database, authorities said. It matched the sample from the scene of the Lake County double slaying, according to court records, and Hobbs was soon freed. Torrez, 24, awaits trial in the killings.
We shouldn't be naive about the costs these criminal procedure rights. When we expand rights of privacy and the rights of the accused, we make it more likely that the guilty will go free. Thus, the classic formulation that it is better that nine guilty men get off than one innocent man be convicted.

But the sad reality of our criminal justice system is that the innocent are too often convicted on flimsy or nonexistent evidence. The main culprit here, it seems, is the false confession. It is hard to imagine why someone would confess to a murder or rape he didn't commit, but Mr. Hobbs' case provides a chilling example:
Police immediately suspected Hobbs after he found his 8-year-old daughter, Laura, and her 9-year-old friend Krystal Tobias stabbed to death in a Zion park in May 2005. Hobbs, then a recent transplant from Texas with a long criminal record, denied killing the girls for most of an interrogation that involved several officers and stretched across about 24 hours, police testified.
Late in his questioning, Hobbs said, "I did it. Just write it down. Start this thing and send me to the judge," according to court records.
We now know that Mr. Hobbs just caved in to the pressure because he wanted to get out of the room and go on with his life, even if just for a minute. It seems that mankind's most overpowering urge is just to be left alone. We can hold out for only so long, but eventually we will falsely confess to savagely murdering our own 8-year-old daughter if it means we can just be left alone for a few minutes.

Police interrogations stretching for 24 hours take advantage of this fundamental human flaw to coerce these false confessions. Why do the police do it? My theory is that they, too, do it so that they can get on with their lives and be left alone. You would think after so many false confessions—perhaps most infamously the false confessions of the Central Park Five—the police would change their tactics. But the police are human too. Deep down, they are more interested in just going home to their families than they are in making sure the confessions they get are true. A confession, whether true or false, solves the case and lets everyone get on with their lives. Once you realize that a man will falsely confess to murder just to be left alone for a few minutes, it becomes easy to understand how a cop will use tactics known to produce false confessions. We are all very weak.

This fundamental weakness is why I oppose putting the DNA of innocent people into a nationwide criminal database. The intentions are no doubt pure, and the benefits are real. But you don't have to be paranoid to worry about how a big government full of weak human beings will abuse this information. It's just too much, and the possibilities are too terrible. Just leave me alone.

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