Boulder County Colorado district attorney Mary T. Lacey yesterday asked that the arrest warrant against John M. Karr in the Jon Benet Ramsey case be dismissed. “No evidence has developed, other than his own repeated admissions, to place Mr. Carr at the scene of the crime,” Lacey stated. “Mr. Karr was not the source of the DNA found on the underwear of JonBenet Ramsey.”
What may be most remarkable about this latest twist in the long-festering case is the district attorney’s forthrightness and honesty in dismissing Karr’s multiple confessions to the crime. Too often, confession is considered the “queen of proofs,” evidence that closes the case. It’s impossible to estimate how many of those convicted and incarcerated on the basis of confession alone may be innocent—but surely some are, such as the Washington pig farmer Paul Ingram accused by his daughters of the most bizarre crimes—none of which was ever supported by a shred of material evidence—whose case was detailed in Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan. Psychologist Richard Ofshe, who has done much probative work on false confessions, quickly established that one could inculcate nearly any false memory one chose in this particularly suggestible suspect. And there are many others who bizarrely convince themselves that they were implicated in crimes they had nothing to do with.
It’s enough to give credence to Sigmund Freud’s apparently bizarre note on criminology called “Criminals From a Sense of Guilt,” where he argues that the reason people commit crimes is that they feel guilty, and want to ensure that they will be punished. This effectively turns the whole criminal justice system on its head.
The Boulder district attorney has taken much flak in this case, but I'd point out that she had the good sense to understand that confessions need some kind of confirmation (in German procedure, a court is not supposed to accept a suspect’s confession unless corroborated by other evidence). Alas, that’s not the standard operating procedure in the U.S.. In most instances, once the police interrogators have got a confession, the suspect is doomed. Not only does this lead to false convictions, it lets the truly guilty escape. Getting confessions comes to appear the easy way to do police work, and that can lead to less than probative results. Confessions should be used to open cases, not to close them.