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Police tunnel vision can lead to wrongful convictions

When a crime attracts a significant amount of media attention in Colorado and around the country, the detectives assigned to investigate it are often put under great pressure to make a quick arrest. Two criminologists from Texas State University say that this desire to close cases quickly can lead to investigators becoming fixated on a prime suspect to the point where they coerce confessions and ignore exculpatory evidence. They arrived at this conclusion after analyzing the case files of 50 innocent individuals who were convicted of serious crimes.

The most worrying part of the study is the number of times innocent defendants were wrongly convicted because of a false confession. Juries tend to find confessions extremely persuasive because they assume that no rational person would confess to a serious crime like murder unless they were guilty. The study is not the only data that suggests coercion is extremely common in serious crime investigations. The Innocence Project says that about a third of the individuals they have exonerated were sent to prison because they confessed.

Tunnel vision can also lead detectives to dismiss exculpatory evidence when they are convinced that they have identified the perpetrator. A man who was convicted in 1990 of murdering a 15-year-old girl was released from prison after spending 16 years behind bars when DNA evidence exonerated him. The detectives investigating the murder knew about the DNA evidence when they persuaded the man to confess, but they changed their theory of the crime to explain it.

Innocent people may feel that having an attorney present during police interviews is unnecessary because they have nothing to hide, and detectives may reinforce this belief by telling them that asking for one would make them appear guilty. Experienced criminal defense attorneys could point out that this is exactly the type of thinking that leads to a false confession, and they may advise any person who finds themselves in a police interview room to request one immediately.

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