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Another Innocent Man Freed From Prison After 28 Years. Is It Possible We Are Not Good At This?
Gerardo Cabanillas confessed to a crime he didn't commit.
In 1995, 18-year-old Gerardo Cabanillas told police that he was one of the two armed men who came up to a couple sitting in a parked car in South Gate, California, robbed them, forced the man out of the car and then drove the woman to an abandoned house where they both raped her. Both the man and the woman picked him out of a police lineup.
On Tuesday, Cabanillas became a free man, exonerated after having been found factually innocent of the crime thanks to DNA testing. The DNA test gave police a new suspect, who just so happens to already be in custody for an unrelated killing.
“Today, we acknowledge a grave injustice that has resulted in the unjust more than 28-year incarceration of Mr. Cabanillas,” Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement on Tuesday. “Upon thorough reexamination of the evidence and a comprehensive review of the case by my office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, it has become abundantly clear that a serious error was made. I extend my deepest apologies to Mr. Cabanillas for the miscarriage of justice and the failure of our criminal legal system.”
“It is imperative that we reflect upon this case as a stark reminder that our criminal legal system is not infallible,” Gascón, a progressive prosecutor and the target of a failed recall effort in 2022, continued. “We must collectively commit to doing better, to continuously improving our procedures, and to ensuring that every person who enters our legal system is afforded a fair and just process.”
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That sure would be nice, but how the hell did this happen in the first place?
Well, not long after Cabanillas confessed, he retracted his confession and said he was coerced, and that he only confessed because the cop who interviewed him said he would get out on probation if he did. He maintained his innocence throughout his trial, but was ultimately convicted of robbery, kidnapping and rape and given what amounted to life in prison.
“False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the United States,” Alissa Bjerkhoel, interim director of the California Innocence Project, said in a statement. “Police are permitted to lie to suspects, including promises of leniency if the person confesses. That is exactly what happened here and, if it was not for the DNA evidence, Gerardo would have spent the rest of his life in prison.”
According to the Innocence Project, about 25 percent of the exonerations they have documented in the United States included a confession, while 11 percent were guilty pleas. It could very well be a lot higher than that, as 95 percent of convictions rest on guilty pleas, not every crime involves testable DNA, and suspects are routinely told by both cops and prosecutors that there is sufficient evidence against them to put them away forever but that they can get less time if they confess.
You see, this happens because police in the United States use an interrogation technique that is largely banned in other countries, called the Reid Technique. Why is it banned? Because it’s widely known to elicit false confessions — particularly in young people, as we’ve seen in this case and with cases like the Central Park Five.
In fact, the Reid Technique elicited a false confession on the case that first made its inventor, John E. Reid, famous for getting confessions. In 1955, Reid, a former Chicago police officer consulting on a case in Lincoln, Nebraska, as a polygraph expert, got a man named Darrel Parker to confess to the rape and murder of his own wife after interrogating him for nine hours. Though Parker retracted his confession the next day, he was found guilty because of it … and then later found to be innocent when the guy who actually did it actually confessed.
Despite the whole “the guy was actually innocent” thing, this notoriety led Reid to found Reid & Associates, a private company that to this day goes around teaching cops how to interrogate suspects. The main technique is telling the suspect (whether it is true or not) that they have enough evidence to convict them and then creating a scenario for the suspect in which the crime is morally justified, but there’s a lot more that goes into it than that.
The Reid Technique also teaches officers to infer guilt based on people being nervous, crying, not making eye contact, and doing several other things that innocent people wrongly accused of a crime they did not commit might do when talking to police, especially if they are still in shock over the loss of a loved one. In the seminars, police are frequently told that “body language” is more important than what a suspect is saying, which is right up there with phrenology in terms of accuracy in actually determining anything.
It is very easy to see, from just the description, how this technique, applied over hours and very frequently with promises that a confession will result in leniency, or that another person who was charged could confess first and get the better deal, could get an innocent person to confess. Especially someone who is young or mentally challenged. In many other countries, it is not legal for police to lie to suspects and tell them there is evidence against them when there is not. It needs to be illegal here as well.
I mean, ask anyone what they’d do if the police told them that there was enough evidence to convict them of a crime they didn’t commit and they believed their choice was to go to prison for a few years if they confess and decades if they don’t? That’s a hard choice.
There are other techniques, used in other nations, that are effective at eliciting confessions from the guilty without “accidentally” ensnaring the innocent. But we don’t use those because, you know, we just really like sending people to prison here.
I’ve never liked the saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” on the grounds that it makes practically zero sense with regard to mental health, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Gerardo Cabanillas lost three decades of his life because a police officer scared him into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, and the police officer will never be held accountable because “qualified immunity.”
It would be sad enough if this were a thing police did a long time ago and stopped doing once we saw how many false confessions it produced, but they’re still doing it all over the country.