Volume 56

Confess or Die: Why Threatening a Suspect with the Death Penalty Should Render Confessions Involuntary

by Lauren Morehouse

In July 1997, the rape and murder of a Navy sailor’s wife shocked the town of Norfolk, Virginia. Even more shocking was the fact that four Navy sailors, Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derick Tice, and Eric Wilson, falsely confessed to the crime. These men became known as the “Norfolk Four.” A Norfolk detective, with a history of eliciting false confessions, interrogated the four sailors. Each confessed to the crime, “alter[ing] their confessions to accommodate details fed to them by the police.” Nearly twenty years later, a federal judge vacated two of the convictions. Less than a year later, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe pardoned the four men.

The Norfolk Four case reveals that the police sometimes obtain false confessions from innocent suspects during interrogations. In the case of the Norfolk Four, the police used a number of tactics to elicit the false confessions. Danial Williams explained that the lead detective “treated him like a criminal from the outset, poking him in the chest, yelling in his face, calling him a liar and telling him, falsely, that he’d failed a polygraph test and that a witness saw him go into the [victim’s] apartment.” Eric Wilson said that the lead detective “hit him several times and showed him photos of the crime scene and the victim and gave him details about the crime to include in his confession.” The police employed one additional tactic. Because the crime at issue involved the rape and murder of a young woman, all four men faced the death penalty under Virginia law if convicted. The police used this to their advantage and threatened the men with the death penalty during the interrogations. The police told them that the only way to avoid the death penalty was to confess. Under the threat of the death penalty, the Norfolk Four falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit. When the police interrogated the true killer over one year later, they told him he could “escape the death penalty” if he implicated the Norfolk Four in his confession. The killer did so in exchange for two life sentences, rather than the death penalty.

This Note will analyze the problem of false confessions and the inadequacy of the test that courts employ to assess the voluntariness and unreliability of confessions made after the police threaten suspects with the death penalty during inter- rogations. Section I of this paper will provide background on police practices contributing to false confessions. Section II details the inquiry that courts make into the voluntariness of confessions. Section III examines the use of the threat of the death penalty by police to elicit confessions. Section III argues that because the threat of the death penalty during an interrogation drastically undermines the reliability of a subsequent confession, these confessions should be considered per se involuntary and inadmissible.

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