False Confessions: Louis

Crossing the Line?


"I will do whatever I have to do within the law to get a confession or to get someone to cooperate with me," says Louis Scarcella, who investigated 241 murders during his 29 years in the New York City Police Department. He adds that his main objective is to get a confession that would lead to a conviction. "Are there rules when it comes to homicide? No. No, there are none. I lie to them. I will use deception. The bad guys don't play by the rules when they kill Ma and Pop " shoot them in the head " ruin the lives of their family. I don't play by the rules.

"There are a lot of tactics you can use. I like the emotional tools. I sat down one day and I prayed with an individual. Sometimes I would use a lie. I had a case, and I said, 'I have your prints. You were there, and that's it.' He said, 'No. No way. I wasn't there.' It's like 4:00 in the morning. I take him into the bathroom, and he says to me, 'Louis, you were right. I was there, but he kicked me, and I shot him by accident.' I said, 'Don't you feel better now?' And he's now doing 37 ½ years to life. It worked that time. I went out on a limb and it worked. I've never deprived anybody of sleep or food. I use that to gain their confidence, and that has broken many, many cases." Louis says police are often accused of coercing confessions. "I have been accused of brutalizing people. I was accused of taking a 17-year-old boy, and banging his head numerous times against a file cabinet. It just never happened.

"Really good detectives are born with this sixth sense, that crystal ball in their stomach. It's having the ability to get inside to that person's soul whatever way you can and get the person to say what you need to hear. I believe everybody wants to confess, and it's up to the detective to get it out of them."

Dr. Phil introduces Steven Drizin, Professor of Law at Northwestern University and Legal Director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions. He then asks Louis, "Are you trying to catch the bad guy, or are you just trying to get a confession to clear a case?"

"I sleep very, very well at night," Louis replies. "What you just said, 'Clear a case' " Many detectives, I believe, are just looking to clear the case, but you cannot put a man away wrongfully. I don't play by the rules, but I play within the moral rules and the rules of the arrest in Brooklyn, New York."

"What do you say, Steven?" asks Dr. Phil.

"We see this happening time and time again. I've documented hundreds of false confessions, most of them in murder cases. What happens is that the detective believes he's interrogating a guilty person, usually because of that gut instinct. But gut instincts are not evidence. You need to have evidence against someone before you launch into these kinds of powerful techniques because they can produce false confessions."

Dr. Phil says, "I understand psychological warfare very well. I understand isolating someone, I understand really overwhelming them, I understand lying to them, and frankly I have to say I agree with what you're saying. If you lie to somebody to make them think you know more than you know and that causes them to urp up the truth and just finally ‘fess up and do it, fine. If you get to the truth, then that makes sense to me. But it seems like in [previous guest] Jon's case they got the confession but they didn't get to the truth, and the problem is once you get the confession if you say, 'OK, I got the confession. Now I can stop. I don't need to go backpedal and figure out whether or not that is actually true or not. Then that seems to me to be the problem."

"In my world a confession does nothing," says Louis. "You can't lock up a guy on a confession. You have to corroborate it." Louis corroborates with other evidence, such as the murder weapon, a credit card, or a statement to another individual.

"In the years that you've been doing all of this, how many times have you gotten a confession that it turned out didn't corroborate, turned out it wasn't true, turned out that it was the wrong person?" asks Dr. Phil.

"Never," Louis replies.

"I find that hard to believe," Steven interjects. "I know some of his colleagues in Brooklyn have gotten false confessions because I've seen them. But maybe it's because he does a good job. Maybe it's because he corroborates them."

When Louis chuckles, Dr. Phil asks, "You feeling guilty?"

"No way. No way," he replies with a laugh.

"There are two problems, OK?" Steven explains. "The first problem is the tactics that police officers use to get confessions. If they're not electronically recorded on videotape then the jury never gets to see how the person is broken down. And the second problem is when the case comes into court, police officers lie about what occurred. They sanitize the interrogation process."

"And you think that's crossing the line," Dr. Phil clarifies.

"Crossing the line," Steven confirms. "And I also think it's crossing the line to bring someone down to that point of hopelessness and then give them a life preserver, like, 'Maybe it was an accident,' or 'The gun went off accidentally.' You give them two choices, 'We don't think you meant to kill this person. It was an accident,' or, 'You're a premeditated killer.' Innocence is off the table. At a point of hopelessness a suspect like Jonathan will say, 'I'll confess to an accident and then when we get into court it will all be worked out.' The problem is the confession becomes the truth once it gets into a court system."


"And I have seen people who will run through a plate glass window to escape anxiety," notes Dr. Phil. "Now, do you think that lying to a suspect is wrong?"

"I think it's problematic when you do it to vulnerable people who are naïve to the system," Steven replies, "who trust law enforcement officers, to youth, to the mentally retarded. My big thing is, I'm not going to say, 'Don't lie.' I'm going to say I need to see that lie on tape. I need to have a recording of the way that lie was done and how the suspect reacted so it doesn't get fudged when it comes to court."