In my last blog post, I mentioned that I am a big fan of the radio show This American Life. Here’s why: in addition to telling stories you would not hear otherwise, like this episode about babies who were actually switched at birth, they also tell stories you’ve heard already, but maybe didn’t really understand, and they explain these stories in a way other news formats do not or cannot. (If you still don’t understand the financial crisis, check out The Giant Pool of Money and related episodes).
This was the case in the most recent episode on confessions. The longest segment of the show ("Act One") discusses a case of a false confession. I’ve watched other investigative news reports on the problem of false confessions, and although my liberal disposition inclined me to believe theories about false confessions, I was left wondering how they could happen in real life. The TAL episode was the first time I’d heard a step-by-step explanation of exactly how a false confession came about and from the perspective of the police interrogator, no less.As in other stories on TAL, however, the ultimate punch-line was not the one expected. The context of most news stories or investigative reports on false confessions is usually a wrongful conviction. In the TAL story, the false confessor was released when she stopped cooperating and the rest of the case against her unravelled. But the story does not have a happy ending: as a result of having been charged with murder, the innocent false confessor never regained custody of her children and had difficulty securing a job. For the next nineteen years. This episode was a stark reminder that for many individuals who get caught up in the criminal justice system, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is a right more often honoured in the breach.