Incentives and False Confessions

Two small, related news stories recently caught my eye. On December 19, 2013, several media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, announced that a 21-year-old Chicago man named Denzel Garbutt had been charged with first-degree murder after confessing to being a lookout in the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy, Nazia “Peanut” Banks, in May 2012.

Just a few weeks later, however, the Tribune ran a second story, reporting that prosecutors had dropped charges against Garbutt after determining he was at his high school prom at the time of the crime.

Apparently, a false confession was nipped in the bud and prevented from becoming a wrongful conviction. But how, in the first place, were murder charges lodged against a young man who could not have participated in the crime? Garbutt was already in custody on other, lesser charges when he confessed. According to the Tribune: “Authorities said they believe Garbutt admitted to being a lookout in hopes of getting his gun and drug case dropped or reduced, not realizing that lookouts and getaway drivers can face murder charges under state law.”

The desire to obtain dismissal or reduction of charges is indeed a powerful motive for providing information to police. False testimony by incentivized witnesses has led to many wrongful convictions. The same motive can lead to false confessions, especially when the suspect, like Garbutt, may not even realize that he is confessing to a crime.

Twenty years ago, even the confirmed prom alibi might not have been enough to set Garbutt free. Consider the case of Daniel Taylor. In 1992, at the age of 17, Taylor was arrested for a double murder in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Taylor confessed, but shortly thereafter, he provided authorities with a seemingly airtight alibi: he was in police custody on a minor charge at the time of the crime. It is difficult to imagine more convincing alibi witnesses than police officers.

Instead of releasing Taylor, however, authorities persisted in the prosecution, and Taylor was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Why? Because in 1992, it was unimaginable that even a homeless teenager would confess to a crime he did not commit. It was not until Taylor served more than two decades behind bars and additional exculpatory evidence finally surfaced that his murder convictions were finally overturned in June 2013.

I hope that the dropping of charges against Garbutt after discovery of his alibi is a sign of progress—a recognition that some confessions are indeed false. I also hope the police and prosecutors closely examine why Garbutt falsely confessed in the first place. Perhaps offering an arrestee a free pass on pending charges is not the most effective way of obtaining reliable information about unsolved crimes.

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