The Innocence Project, a group that uses DNA evidence to free people who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit, has made a remarkable discovery:
“In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.”
Unscrupulous police interrogators use a number of techniques to manipulate innocent suspects into self-incrimination. These techniques usually do not involve physical abuse. It is more accurate to think in terms of “mind games.” The police are experienced players, but the suspects aren’t.
One technique police use is to ask a suspect to describe what could have happened, or to imagine hypothetical scenarios. That is what they did with Amanda. She was questioned many times in the days following Meredith Kercher’s murder, and she consistently told the same story — the truth.
But four days after the murder, in the pre-dawn hours of November 6, 2007, the questioning became much more aggressive in tone, and Amanda found herself in a situation she had no idea how to handle. She was shut up in a room at a police station, thousands of miles from home, confronted by angry cops who were accusing her of a terrible crime in a language she had only begun to learn. She was more frightened than she had ever been in her life.
The police grilled her, again and again, about an exchange of text messages between her and the man she worked for, Patrick Lumumba. They insisted that the two of them made plans to meet on the night of the murder.
Amanda denied it. They told her she was lying.
They told her they had proof she was at the scene of the crime — a lie.
They told her she would go to prison for the next 30 years, and would never see her family again.
Finally, after a long and grueling interrogation, she yielded to police demands by describing an imaginary dream or vision. In this vision, she was in the kitchen covering her ears to block out screams while the man she worked for, Patrick Lumumba, was in Meredith’s bedroom.
It was completely untrue, but it was what the police wanted to hear.
As Perugia’s chief of police told Newsweek magazine, “she buckled.”
A few hours later, after Amanda got some rest and had time to think, she wrote a note to the police in which she attempted to reconcile what she had said with what she thought was the truth. She wrote:
In regards to this “confession” that I made last night, I want to make clear that I’m very doubtful of the verity of my statements because they were made under the pressures of stress, shock and extreme exhaustion. Not only was I told I would be arrested and put in jail for 30 years, but I was also hit in the head when I didn’t remember a fact correctly. I understand that the police are under a lot of stress, so I understand the treatment I received.
However, it was under this pressure and after many hours of confusion that my mind came up with these answers. In my mind I saw Patrik in flashes of blurred images. I saw him near the basketball court. I saw him at my front door. I saw myself cowering in the kitchen with my hands over my ears because in my head I could hear Meredith screaming. But I’ve said this many times so as to make myself clear: these things seem unreal to me, like a dream, and I am unsure if they are real things that happened or are just dreams my head has made to try to answer the questions in my head and the questions I am being asked.
When Amanda says she was hit, she means she was slapped in the back of the head. That is inexcusable conduct, but it is the least of the problems with the way Amanda was treated. She was pressured into making a statement that she believed was untrue, and said was untrue — but by that time she had been badgered and manipulated to the point where she really thought that her memory might be playing tricks on her. She explains this in her note:
The police have told me that they have hard evidence that places me at the house, my house, at the time of Meredith’s murder. I don’t know what proof they are talking about, but if this is true, it means I am very confused and my dreams must be real.
Obviously, Amanda was thoroughly confused, but the police didn’t seem to care. As soon as they got her to tell them what they wanted to hear, they went out and arrested Lumumba with no further questions asked. But later on, when it turned out that Lumumba was innocent and Amanda’s statement was as unreliable as she herself said it was, they charged her with making a false accusation.
The police in Perugia probably could have gotten Amanda — or almost any young person in her situation — to say anything, if they had worked at it long enough. Nothing Amanda told the police in that stressful interrogation was the least bit useful in terms of clarifying what really happened to Meredith Kercher. Amanda told the truth the first time around. She wasn’t there when Meredith was killed.