The blawgosphere was atwitter recently over that Kentucky murder trial where the defendant had confessed, but claimed it was a false confession, due to “sleep-deprived psychosis” from drinking too much coffee. The jury didn’t buy it (here’s a short article on it).
Did that case remind anyone else of this short film?
It’s no secret that sleep deprivation does crazy things to the brain. Among other things, it dramatically impairs judgment and cognition, and for this reason has for decades been seen as a highly effective interrogation tool by intelligence agencies around the world. No matter how well trained, most people are simply going to break after a fairly short period of disorientation and sleep deprivation. Of course, sleep deprivation also results in hallucinations, extreme discomfort, and memory problems — as well as increased suggestibility — making useful interrogation under such circumstances a job requiring the utmost care and attention. It’s worse than dealing with a young child (as we all know, children are enormously suggestible, so that their statements can be manipulated unwittingly even by one’s body language and tone of voice). It’s like questioning a child who is stressing from sheer confusion, and who is also in a hypnotic state. Suffice it to say that the slightest error by the interrogator can produce completely unreliable results, or at best results that must be artfully interpreted to divine what’s more likely to be the truth.
Suffice it also to say that the vast majority of law enforcement officers do not conduct interrogations with such extreme care. If any do.
So this this defense, in and of itself, isn’t as laughable as all that. False confessions are a significant problem, the significance of which only grows larger with each new DNA exoneration. If someone was in a state of sleep deprivation when he confessed, it would be worthwhile to figure out precisely how sleep-deprived he was, and what the interrogators said or did to elicit the confession.
The jurors came back pretty quickly with a guilty verdict. There was other evidence, after all, tending to show guilt. Nobody else was there, the defendant had been getting worked up over fear that his wife was going to leave him for a younger man, he was extremely jealous, on the day of the murder he picked up their kids from school and drove to his parents’ house sobbing that he thought his wife was dead… it wasn’t the weakest of cases. But would the jury have convicted so quickly without testimony about the confession?
What is interesting about this case — at least according to the news reports out there — is that the sleep-deprivation thing was only used to negate the confession. It wasn’t used as a “temporary insanity” defense to committing the crime itself. He wasn’t saying “I did it, but I can’t be held responsible.” He was saying “I didn’t do it, and I didn’t know what I was saying when I said I did it.” That’s a pretty novel approach.
It didn’t work here, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see this sort of defense attempted in other cases down the road. Given that cops tend to stop investigating the moment they get a confession, it’s easy to envision a case where the defense might even work.