Editorial The Sad Truth About Why You May Need a Lawyer (Even When You’re Innocent)

Even if you're innocent, hiring a criminal lawyer shouldn't be overlooked. Some 30 years ago, the body of an 11-year-old girl was found in North Carolina. It was a sickening case for investigators, and locals were horrified to hear the circumstances of her death. The young girl had been raped and brutally murdered. The community cried out for justice. An eye for an eye. It wasn't too long before detectives linked a pair of brothers to the crime. There was some circumstantial evidence, and the teens caved during interrogation and confessed to the murder. In 1984, they were convicted of rape, as well as first-degree murder, and were subsequently sentenced to death. It sounds like an open-and-shut case, but there was one problem… the boys were innocent.

North Carolina Recently Paid Two Falsely-Accused Men $750,000 Each for their Troubles

The story made recent headline news when the state of North Carolina awarded each of the now-grown men $750,000 for the 30 years they spent behind bars. The pair of brothers even had new trials while they were incarcerated, with one receiving a death sentence again, and the other's punishment being reduced to life in prison. Perhaps more concerning, is the fact that the brothers are mentally disabled, and were repeatedly bullied and attacked by other inmates while they were incarcerated. Their physical scars will fade, though the emotional torture they endured for three decades has left wounds that may never be repaired.

It Took DNA Evidence to Have the Innocent Men Freed

Ultimately, a cigarette found at the scene of the crime linked one of the girl's neighbors to it. Not surprisingly, the man who smoked that cigarette was already serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of another woman, which occurred just weeks after the 11-year-old's gruesome death. As much as one might like to think that this is an isolated incident, 125 people were exonerated in the last year alone.

False Confessions are Not Rare

Reports indicate that dozens of the individuals exonerated in the last year confessed to the crime they were charged with. Police often coerce individuals they believe are guilty into signing false confessions. While certain groups of people are more-likely to give false confessions, like those who are mentally disabled, people with mental disorders, and the young, anyone can become a victim. It all boils down to the techniques police use to interrogate people.

The Reid Technique is a Dangerous False-Confession Generator

One of the most common methods of questioning used by law enforcement is the Reid Technique. It begins with the agent befriending the suspect, and then wearing him down over time. The officer may lie and say there's evidence or witnesses that prove the suspect is guilty, and he will persist until he gets a confession, or until a lawyer puts an end to the questioning. Sometimes, a detective will come up with plausible scenarios that will make it sound like the incident was an accident, hoping to get a confession even if the pretense is wrong. This is what happened with Michelle Dawn Murphy, an Oklahoma woman who was recently released after 20 years of false imprisonment. When Murphy, herself, was just 17-years-old, her 15-month-old baby was brutally murdered. Detectives questioned her for six hours, before planting it into her head that perhaps she killed the baby while she was partially asleep, and didn't realize she had done it. Her final confession indicated she was angry after a fight with her neighbor. ''I needed to take it out on somebody, and I ended up hurting my son,'' she said. In hindsight, anyone can see those words are shaky. She doesn't seem to know what happened, or why she would have killed her baby, yet she went to prison anyway.

The Reid Technique is grueling, and can bring an ordinary person to his knees. If you've just been traumatized by the death of a loved one, it's easy for law enforcement to take you down with psychological warfare. It's impossible to know how many people are imprisoned every year after issuing false confessions, but it's very clear that it happens with alarming frequency. While it's always advisable to cooperate with law enforcement, it's imperative to have a lawyer by your side, even if they tell you that you're not a suspect, or that they just want to talk and get information. It may begin with a friendly discussion, but it could end with you behind bars. Refuse to talk to them without your lawyer present. It's your right to do so, and it may be the smartest decision you ever make.
Legal Practice
Crime - Criminal Defense
  1. Colorado
  2. North Carolina
About author
Brian Musell
Brian J. Musell first became interested in criminal defense and social justice issues while working as an intern at the Colorado Public Defender's Office in Fort Collins while attending Colorado State University. While working as an investigative intern, Brian Musell saw firsthand the bias from the courts and prosecution against people who made a mistake, and needed a second chance. Brian recognized a true opportunity to defend justice and fairness within our court system, and has been a criminal defense attorney since.


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Brian Musell
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