Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Banality of False Confession: This American Life and Detective Jim Trainum

detective Jim Trainum, former DC Homicide Detective turned interrogation reform advocate
Detective Jim Trainum
In case anyone missed This American Life Episode 507 entitled "Confessions" check it out. Act one centers on Jim Trainum a long serving Washington DC Homicide Detective. He worked a big case early in his career and got a 19 year old woman named Kim to confess to a murder. The thing is, she didn't do it. After getting the confession, Trainum accidentally found an alibi for Kim and the case was dismissed for that and other reasons. It was only many years later that Trainum discovered he had unwittingly created the false confession. The arrest and months of incarceration ruined Kim's life and the murder charge still shows up on background checks. Use the embedded player to listen to the story:


It Doesn't Take a Bad Cop

The story demonstrates how a police interview makes a false confession a very real possibility. The interviewers give the suspect a lot of information about the crime in an effort to get more. Answers that don't comport with police suspicions are easily dismissed while details that reinforce the detective's theory are taken as truth. The interrogation becomes, not a search for the truth, but a bizarre exercise in shaping the person's statement so it lines up with what the investigators already believe. Once the subject has it all right, the police have a "confession." The recorders now come on to create the evidence that will be played for the jury.

The only reason that detective Jim Trainum caught the false confession in his case is that he accidentally left the video recording running for a large part of the interview. Kim had previously confessed to using the dead man's credit card and, after recording that, the video kept going. At the time in 1994, department policy was to record only the inculpatory statement.

Today most states, Maine included, don't require police interviews to be recorded at all. In many cases, the officer will simply write a report of the interview, recording the details he thinks are important. Later, he will take the witness stand to give the jury his recollection of the defendant's confession.