False Confessions: A Former Detective’s Perspective

When the future stakes are this severe, sometimes it is necessary to revisit the past. In 2013, Detective James “Jim” Trainum, a former cold case homicide detective and head of the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s Violent Crimes Review Unit, dictated a distressing yet refreshingly honest account of how simple it is for detectives to obtain a false confession. Per the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Trainum does not describe a hostile environment where loose-cannon cops browbeat witnesses and wreck emotional havoc on frightened suspects with utter impunity. If anything, Trainum’s revealing explanation of the detective’s role in an interrogation – “sorting through the half-truths” – presents the wrongful conviction process as disturbingly humdrum, rational, and routine. He conducted the proper tests. He spoke calmly and did not make threats.

But ever since he unwittingly procured a false confession more than 20 years ago, Trainum has been re-tracing his mistakes and advocating for interrogation reform as a result. He realized that he essentially fed the wrongfully convicted suspect the entire case, citing his own ego – “we’ve got the biggest ones out there,” he laughed – as one reason why he failed to properly characterize the suspect’s incorrect assertions as guesses so many years ago. He noted the suspect’s sound IQ and absence of mental illness when she confessed. Of course, Trainum has learned from some of the assumptions he made as a homicide detective in the 1990s. “[T]he biggest misconception about false confessions is that you have to be crazy to confess to something you didn’t commit,” he told the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “[]But that’s how interrogation works. We box you into a corner, and then we show you the light.” Click on the above link (repeated here) if you would like to read the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project’s full story on Trainum’s personal views regarding false confessions. It is also worth noting that Trainum was recently interviewed on Serial as an expert on false confessions.

Trainum’s primary reform recommendation was the videotaping of interrogations to hold detectives accountable, identify mistakes, and use as evidence when reviewing questionable convictions. In August 2013, then-Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation that mandated expanding the recording of homicide interrogations to include individuals suspected of eight different violent felonies in Illinois. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez told the Chicago Tribune that she supported the new legislation and dubbed recorded interrogations “awesome piece[s] of evidence.” Under the bill, which won’t be fully implemented until June 2016 (per the Innocence Project), courts will presume inadmissible any statement a suspect of one of the eight violent felonies makes unless the interrogation is recorded.

As for Trainum, while his openness (he also spoke on This American Life in October 2013) may lead to justice for Kim Crafton, the wrongfully convicted woman, he and the city for which he worked may also be found liable. According to this article from roughly four months ago, Trainum’s detailed public breakdown of how his interrogation yielded a false confession provided Crafton with “ammunition” to sue Trainum and the District of Columbia for coercing her confession. Crafton’s lawsuit in particular blames her confession on Trainum’s use of the controversial Reid technique of interrogation, which is no longer used by the Metropolitan Police Department. Further affirmation of William Faulkner’s famous cliche that the past is never dead. In the case of wrongfully convicted individuals, it’s not even past.

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