The Importance of Accurate Corroboration within a Confession

Written By: Reid
Aug 01, 2004

The Importance of Accurate Corroboration within a Confession

Of all possible evidence presented against a defendant at trial, a confession is afforded the most weight. Because of this, we have maintained that a confession must satisfy two requirements. A confession is a statement that (1) accepts personal responsibility for committing a crime along with (2) the circumstances and details of the crime. There are two types of details of the crime that serve to corroborate the confession. Dependent corroboration is information about the crime that is purposefully withheld from the suspect and the media. Independent corroboration describes information volunteered by the suspect about the crime that was not known by the investigator and is independently verified after the confession is obtained. If a suspect makes a statement that accepts responsibility for committing a crime but refuses to offer details or offers inaccurate details about the crime, this statement, regardless of its spontaneity or detail, fails to satisfy the definition of a confession.

A recent Massachusetts Supreme court decision brings to light the issue of what should legally constitute a confession. In this case the court overturned an arson conviction in which the defendant's confession, admitted as evidence during the initial trial, contained substantial faulty corroboration (Commonwealth v. DiGiambattista, 2004.) Not only did the Supreme Court rule that the confession should have been suppressed, but also that in future criminal trials if an interrogation and confession is not electronically recorded the judge must instruct the jury to view the confession with great caution. This ruling has tremendous potential implications for all investigators.

The case facts relating to the confession for the DiGiambattista case are as follows: forensic evidence from the crime scene provided a number of facts about the fire that could be used as dependent corroboration. This included that the fire was started with gasoline and that the primary source of ignition was a closet on the first floor of the building. In addition, it was also established that a small paper fire was started in the kitchen sink.

The defendant's confession indicated that on the night of the fire he had entered the building through the front door using his key, and poured gasoline throughout the building which he lit with both matches and a lighter. While the defendant volunteered the fact that he started the fire with gasoline (possible dependent corroboration), he indicated four definite locations where he had started fires on both floors of the building. None of these locations corresponded with the first floor closet. The investigator had DiGiambattista draw sketches of the crime scene and asked that the sketch include the location of the kitchen sink. This effort to stimulate the suspect's memory of starting the fire in the sink appears to have been insufficient, since the defendant's confession never mentions starting a fire in the kitchen sink, or anywhere else inside the kitchen.

The defendant's confession provided abundant information that could serve as independent corroboration. His confession indicated that he had brought gasoline to the crime scene in a 2 Ohm gallon container purchased at a particular hardware store. He further identified the gasoline station where he bought $1.00 worth of gasoline. The defendant offered a number of different explanations about where he disposed of the gasoline can, ultimately stating that he threw it away at a nearby picnic area.

Subsequent investigation demonstrated that the defendant could not have bought the gas container at the hardware store he indicated. Eventually, the gas can was found. However, it was a six-gallon container and it was found in a back room of the building that was burned. Furthermore, the station where he claimed to have purchased the gasoline had no record of selling $1.00 worth of gas the night of the fire.

In its appeal, the prosecutor argued that the defendant's confession should be admitted because it contained four pieces of evidence that supported the defendant's guilt. Specifically, it was argued that the defendant had a motive to commit the crime (anger toward the landlord), there was an eye witness (a person described a man resembling the defendant outside the building near the time the fire was set), access (the defendant was one of three people with a key to the front door) and propensity (the defendant lied about having a key to the building and leaving his home the night of the fire).

The evidence presented by the prosecutor in no way reflects on the trustworthiness of the confession itself. A number of people associated with the landlord may have had a motive to start the fire; the suspect's body type probably resembles thousands of others; two other people had keys to the building (or the arsonist picked the lock or entered the building via another opening). Finally, even though the defendant was caught lying about possessing a key to the building, there are a number of reasons suspects lie to police during an investigation, not all of which are motivated to cover involvement in the offense.

A valid confession should contain information about the crime that could only be known by the guilty person and can also be verified as true. It is not sufficient that a suspect's statement contains spontaneous detail, represents an admission against self-interest or provides logical answers to questions posed by the investigator. Because of the evidential weight placed on a confession, it must meet a higher level of proof.

We are aware of numerous cases where legitimate true confessions have been found to contain minor factual inconsistencies n a perfect fit should not be required by the court. However, when the confession misses the mark in that essentially every detail is inconsistent with the facts, it should be viewed with extreme caution. From our assessment of available information, we believe there are four ways this suspect could be so far off base in his corroborative statements:

  1. The suspect is guilty of the arson but clever enough to offer inaccurate corroboration, hoping that this may cause his confession to be suppressed.

2. The suspect participated in the commission of the arson with a second individual whom he is now covering for and is simply guessing at some of the actions of his accomplice.

  1. The suspect does not know if he is guilty of starting the fire because of an underlying psychiatric or medical condition that affects his memory or perception of reality. In an effort to please the investigators, receive punishment he believes he deserves, or for other unknown reasons, the suspect offered details about the crime based on common sense, intuition or some other source in no way derived from his own recollections.

4. The suspect is innocent of the arson but was coerced into confessing. Under this circumstance certainly an innocent suspect may accept responsibility for starting the fire and then, during the oral phase of the confession, offer his best estimate as to what the actual arsonist did.

A judge or jury should not be faced with having to select the most probable cause for faulty corroboration within a confession. The initial responsibility rests on the investigator who obtained the confession to make certain that the details contained within the confession can be verified as accurate. If the details of a confession cannot be essentially verified, the suspect's unsupported statement "I committed this crime" should not be offered as evidence of his guilt

From the information available to us, it is not known at what point the factual inconsistencies in DiGiambattista's confession became known and it may never be established whether or not this confession was true or false. Even if there was substantial evidence indicating that the defendant did start the fire, his statement to the police accepting personal responsibility for starting the fire should not be admissible as evidence of a full confession unless the statement is coupled with details of the crime that are verified as substantially accurate.

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