Wrongful convictions of disabled can be prevented

Many of us like to please others – our supervisor, our spouse, our children – but how many of us would take that as far as confessing to a serious crime that we did not commit?

In a study completed by the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in 2008, a researcher discovered 53 cases of serious felonies to which people with intellectual disabilities confessed and were later legally exonerated. These exonerations were based on significant evidence such as DNA tests or eventual confessions by the real perpetrators. In some cases, the crimes to which the suspects confessed never even occurred. In many cases, the person with a disability already had served significant jail time before being exonerated.

The examples, spanning years from 1924 to 2007, came from across the United States (no cases from Colorado were included in the study.) They include such cases as a 2002 case in Georgia, in which a man with intellectual disabilities confessed to being present at the murder of a 15-year-old girl, even though the man was with his family in Brazil for the three days before and eight days after the murder.

A 1979 case in Florida recorded a man with an IQ of 56 who confessed to the murders of six women. After the man spent 22 years in prison, he was released when DNA evidence excluded him from all six of the murders. In a 1985 case in New Jersey, a man with an IQ of 57 confessed to beating his girlfriend to death with a stick. The woman died from alcohol poisoning.

What was clear from all 53 cases was that people with intellectual disabilities can be unduly susceptible to interrogation techniques used by some law-enforcement agencies. Intellectual disabilities can affect a person’s ability to perceive a situation correctly and affects the ability to make good judgments.

People with intellectual disabilities frequently strive to please others, especially those in authority. Often, this is a survival technique learned by a person who is dependent on others to meet his or her basic needs. In this study, those characteristics led to wrongful convictions. In other situations, it can make a person with a disability vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.

As a community, we can address this problem. La Plata County already has led the way in preventing wrongful convictions of people with disabilities by instituting a Crisis Intervention Team training for law enforcement and first responders in our area. The CIT training offers tools for working with people with mental illness and other disabilities. Since CIT was implemented in 2003, 230 law-enforcement officers and community members have graduated from the program.

La Plata County also has an active Adult Protection Team, programs like Alternative Horizons and the Violence Prevention Coalition to reduce violence, and programs to support and advocate for people with disabilities such as Community Connections and Axis Health Systems. By supporting these programs and others like them, we help make La Plata County a safer place for everyone.

Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.