In 1989, Trisha Meili was jogging in Central Park, New York, when she was attacked, beaten, and subsequently raped. Later, it became known that there was a series of attacks in the park that day, but the attack on Meili was the most brutal one. Several young men were arrested, and during the interrogation, five of them—aged 14 to 16, four African Americans and one Hispanic American—confessed to having assaulted Meili. The victim herself was in a coma and later amnesic, which is why she could not confirm the identity of attackers. All five were convicted and sentenced to five to 15 years in prison. However, 13 years later, a rapist who had been sentenced to life in prison confessed to having raped Meili, and the following investigation confirmed that he, indeed, was the attacker. The five men’s convictions were vacated. However, the question persists: why did they confess to the crime they had not committed? Two major reasons can be discussed: interrogation techniques and impression from the case details.
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First of all, it is noteworthy that all five suspects initially denied their connection to the rape, which is why it is important to understand what happened during the interrogation that brought them from the state of denial to the state of confession. The interrogations were long (up to 30 hours), and it can be assumed that the suspects experienced the pressure that made them confess. Dr. Saul Kassin, a psychology professor who was studying the case, says that it was “a textbook example of false confessions.” He claims that, when asked why they confessed to a crime they had not committed, false confessors are likely to say that they were exhausted from the interrogation and confessed just to stop it. At the same time, they thought they would be pronounced innocent once the real evidence was collected. Also, the suspects were frightened; one of them claimed that he heard another suspect being beaten in the next room and was told that he would be next.
However, this does not explain why the suspects provided so many details about the attack. They would demonstrate how they were holding the victim to keep her down or ripping off her blouse, and they answered very particular questions, such as questions on how exactly they were rubbing their penises against the victim. It can be argued that this urge to tell imaginary details was caused by the strong impression one gets when told about the details of a crime of which he or she is accused. The suspects were shown some pictures of the victim (severely beaten and covered in mud and blood), and some were taken to the crime scene. These experiences may have altered their memory and made them confess voluntarily.
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