Civil Wrongs, Episode 3: A Confession's Worth
Police interrogations are a routine part of crime fighting. While interrogations can, and do solve cases, they can also result in false confessions. And that is more common than people realize.
When Ell Persons was accused of murdering a white teenage girl in 1917, police say he confessed, though the evidence was slim. His confession — and those still legally obtained today — can lead to potentially tragic outcomes.
James Bolden knows how it can happen. As a kid in rural Fayette County, he saw firsthand how police abused the local Black community.
"They had what we call field interrogations, where you were interrogated right there on the spot," he says.
Which is how his life changed course in 1962, after his family moved to Memphis. Police stopped him to ask about one of his friends.
"He wanted me to put my head into the car. And what they would do is take and roll the window up," Bolden says. "While you had your head in the car and they would hit you on the head with the nightstick."
Bolden didn’t take the bait. He was sent away with a warning.
"I went home, I walked into the house and my mother saw me crying and she wanted to know what happened," he says.
That’s when Bolden told his mother what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
"She said that doesn't make sense. Why would you want to be a police officer?" Bolden says. "Because I'm going to make sure that they don't do that to another young boy."
When Ell Persons was interrogated for the 1917 killing of Antoinette Rappel, local newspapers said it involved what was commonly known as the “third degree,” including threats, beatings and false evidence. Most of that was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court 19 years later.
Most of it…
Dr. Hayley Cleary, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who studies how psychology plays out in interrogations, says coercion continues in the psychological tactics that have replaced the "third degree" tactics of the past.
"And these methods, for example using trickery or deception to trick suspects, have been pretty consistently upheld by the courts and in many departments have really become the norm," Cleary says.
Cleary says that while they may be perfectly legal, and may even look harmless to a layperson — say, a member of a jury — people who are mentally vulnerable or under duress may be more likely to confess to something merely to end the interrogation.
"The reaction that folks in my field get constantly is 'why would you confess to a crime you never committed?'" says Cleary. "And in that moment, confession can actually seem like the best most rational choice because it ends the stress. And people time and time and time again will tell you, 'I just wanted to go home. I wanted it all to stop and I wanted to go home.'"
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, one in every eight people cleared since 1989 had confessed to the crime.
"Many times we confuse interviewing with interrogation," says Bolden, who did become a decorated member of the Memphis Police Department, rising to chief of police in 2003.
He confirms what many researchers say can trigger those stressful responses in some suspects.
"Sometimes we enter into an interrogation assuming that the person is guilty," he says. "And you have to be extremely careful."
In recent years, Memphis reporters found several instances of false confessions at the MPD. Such as Terrell Johnson, who was 17 in 2013. He was arrested on suspicion of robbery and murder. His mother, Hope Chambers, told the Institute for Public Service Reporting that when she left the interrogation room, her son was then pressured to confess. The real perpetrator was identified later, but not before Johnson spent months in juvenile detention. Bolden says cases like these erode the public’s trust in police work.
"We can't do what was done 40, 50 years ago and expect it to be acceptable," Bolden says. "We have to adapt to the times. Society is not going to adapt to law enforcement. Law enforcement has to adapt to the will and the culture of the society in which we live."
Currently, 30 states mandate recorded interrogations of suspects in serious crimes, according to the Innocence Project. Tennessee is not one of them. It’s not for a lack of trying. Three times in the past 20 years, lawmakers have proposed recording laws.
Representative Eddie Bass, a former sheriff, calls it a "bad bill," arguing in 2011 that a single glitch in a recording could help a child rapist go free.
"All we’re going to do with this bill is give them avenues to get out of what they’ve done," he said in a public hearing.
Nationally, U.S. Representative Steve Cohen cosponsored a bill in July 2020 to provide sheriff departments with funding to buy recording equipment. The bill hasn’t moved forward.
But the City of Memphis has. In 2019, MPD instituted the recording of every homicide interrogation following an investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting. Those recordings are all treated as evidence.
Ell Persons’ confession was never used against him in a court of law. The media cited it as proof of guilt and before Persons could be tried, a mob abducted him and brought him to the scene of the crime, a wooded area off what is now Summer Avenue.
Margaret Vandiver, a retired University of Memphis professor and Ell Persons researcher, has visited often.
"We are in a site that seems rural and yet Memphis is all around us," she says.
In a few years, the Wolf River Conservancy is expected to bring a walking trail to this site, the place where Persons was burned alive.
"It was left in a condition that surprisingly similar to what it was a hundred years ago," she says.
Which is partly why Rep. Cohen introduced a bill to make this place among the first lynching sites protected by the National Park Service.
Vandiver says it's urgent to preserve the site because there are not many remaining in their original condition.
For Vandiver and others, this small tract of land remains a crime scene that puts Memphis itself on trial. And each new generation that discovers this place is asked to sit on the jury to determine how far we’ve come.
Civil Wrongs is a project of the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting and WKNO. Learn more at our Civil Wrongs project page.