False confessions happen. At least 245 people have been exonerated from convictions in cases featuring confessions that were simply not true. Confessions offer a narrative that allows law enforcement, and society in general, to neatly resolve cases with apparent clarity and closure. And yet the pressures officers place on suspects to provide that closure weigh disproportionately on the vulnerable, including individuals with intellectual disabilities. These individuals are disadvantaged at every step of the custodial interrogation, and they face heightened risks of falsely confessing. Moreover, the principal judicial safeguards against false confessions—assessing a suspect’s Miranda waiver and determining whether a confession was voluntarily given within the bounds of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause—provide little protection for the innocent with intellectual disabilities.
Few pieces of scholarship focus specifically on the heightened risks faced by individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout the process of police interrogation. This Note describes the various ways these individuals are disadvantaged. And it offers an additional data point illustrating the vulnerability of people with intellectual disabilities. This Note analyzes the 245 individuals (as of June 2, 2017) on the National Registry of Exonerations who have falsely confessed. Over one-quarter of them display indicia of intellectual disability. This percentage dwarfs the prevalence of people with intellectual disabilities in the general population and even exceeds most estimates of the proportion of the prison population suffering from intellectual disabilities. This Note concludes with several policy and doctrinal suggestions to better protect individuals with intellectual disabilities from the risks of false confession.
* J.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School, 2018.