Feature

APA has filed amicus curiae briefs in two recent high-profile state court of appeals cases to provide psychological evidence that could illuminate the behavioral factors behind the cases’ legal arguments. In one case, APA’s brief seeks to help a man receive compensation for time he was wrongfully imprisoned due to his false confession. In the second case, the court relied upon APA’s brief to decide in favor of gay and lesbian parents hoping to adopt children.

False confessions

In the first case, the central question is whether people who, under duress, falsely confess to crimes should be eligible to receive compensation if they’re wrongfully imprisoned as a result. The legal team of a Rochester, N.Y., man, Douglas Warney, and the State of New York are wrangling over that question. APA filed a brief based on psychological research on false confessions that supports Warney’s contention that he has a right to compensation.

Here’s the history of the case: In 1996, Warney called police and told them he had some information on a stabbing death that had occurred. During questioning, he first implicated his cousin, then confessed that he himself had stabbed the victim. Soon thereafter he recanted, but his confession proved enough to convict him. He was sentenced to 25 years to life. Ten years later, DNA evidence revealed that another man had committed the crime and Warney was freed.

Ordinarily, wrongfully imprisoned people can seek compensation from the state, but the state of New York protested, saying Warney’s confession was the reason he was imprisoned. But Warney’s lawyers note that at the time he was questioned, their client had an IQ under 70, was heavily medicated for AIDS and had been in a psychiatric ward just days earlier.

They further contended that police used bullying interrogation tactics and fed information to Warney about the crime that he then wove into his false confession, making it appear to the jury that Warney had inside information about the stabbing. The police are primarily responsible for Warney’s confession, his lawyers say, and therefore he should be eligible for compensation for his stint in prison.

APA provided the court with a number of case examples showing how interrogation tactics can lead some people, especially those with serious mental illnesses, to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. But it’s notoriously difficult to get judges and juries to understand this, says Saul Kassin, PhD, a false confessions expert and psychology professor at Williams College in Williamston, Mass., who helped write APA’s brief. "It’s always been a tough sell," he says. "It goes against common sense that someone would confess to something like that."

Yet numerous studies and historical evidence show that false confessions happen somewhat regularly: 25 percent of people who’ve been exonerated since the advent of DNA testing had been convicted primarily on the basis of a false confession, Kassin says.

While the court of appeals will eventually decide whether Warney’s case merits compensation, Kassin says the ordeal highlights the need for a better understanding of false confessions in the court system. If psychologists are allowed to provide expert testimony on confessions — which varies from state to state — he says they can explain to juries just how innocent people can crack under pressure or how interrogators can exploit the weak-willed or mentally ill. "Most people don’t understand what an interrogation looks like, what methods are available to interrogators," Kassin says. "Once allowed in, an expert can at least enlighten the jury."

Good parenting

The Florida Court of Appeals relied upon another amicus brief filed by APA in its decision to overturn Florida’s statutory ban on adoptions by gay and lesbian parents.

APA provided the court with scientific evidence refuting contentions by the statute’s advocates that gay and lesbian partners would be unfit to raise a child. The research and related policy statements cited by APA in its brief state that homosexuality is a normal variant of human sexuality and is not a disease or disorder of any kind. APA also cited a deep body of research showing that gay and lesbian couples lead lives just as healthy, productive and well-adjusted as straight couples, and that research shows that children who have been raised in homes with same-sex parents do as well as children raised by heterosexual parents.

Though the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees adoption in the state, sought to prevent such scientific evidence from being presented in court, the judge overruled their contention. The department called its own experts to argue that gay and lesbian couples were more prone to breaking up than straight people, were more encouraging of sexual activity at an early age, and suffered from higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, thus making them less able to parent.

Judge Cindy S. Lederman ultimately rejected the state’s experts’ claims, writing in her final decision that "they do not provide a reasonable basis for allowing homosexual foster parenting or guardianships while imposing a prohibition on adoption … there is no rational basis for this statute." Lederman cited APA’s briefs and policies regarding same-sex couples in reaching her decisions.

That came as no surprise to APA General Counsel Nathalie Gilfoyle, who oversees APA’s amicus briefs. "The relevant psychological research is so robust on gay and lesbian parenting that when courts take the time to review it, they often reject the prejudiced rationales for discriminatory legislation and strike down the challenged restrictions," she says.