Margaret Colgate Love
Executive clemency has a rich history in the United States, both as an agent of justice and as a tool of politics. A presidential power to pardon was included in Article II of the Constitution, and all but one of the state constitutions provides for a clemency mechanism. States have established a variety of ways to manage and sometimes limit a governor’s exercise of the constitutional pardoning power, but the president’s power has remained unlimited by law. Until quite recently, clemency played a fully operational part in both federal and state justice systems, and the pardoning power was used regularly and generously to temper the harsh results of a criminal prosecution. Presidents also used their power to calm and unify the country after a period of strife, and to further policy goals when legislative solutions fell short.
But in modern times unruly clemency’s justice-enhancing role has been severely diminished, initially because reforms in the legal system made it less necessary, but later because of theoretical and practical objections to its regular use. A reluctance on the part of elected officials to take political risks, as well as clemency-related controversies, have further eroded clemency’s legitimacy. As a result, in most U.S. jurisdictions clemency now plays a limited role, and the public regards its exercise with suspicion. There are only about a dozen states in which clemency operates as an integral part of the justice system, in large part because its exercise is protected from political pressures by constitutional design. At the same time, the need for an effective clemency mechanism has never been greater, particularly in the federal system, because of lengthy mandatory prison sentences and the lifelong collateral civil consequences of conviction. It appears unlikely that an unregulated and unrestrained executive power will ever be restored to its former justice-enhancing role, so that those concerned about fairness and proportionality in criminal punishments must engage in the more demanding work of democratic reform.
Stories involving false confessions can be emotional and moving, as they appeal to our innate desire for justice. As such, stories of false confessions can be powerful tools in books, films, and televisions shows. The way that a false confession is framed, and the context in which it is introduced to consumers (whether as readers or viewers) makes a big difference in how a false confession will be perceived.
In fictional stories in print or on screen, typically the viewer (or reader) has some sense of a person’s true innocence or guilt. In a television show, the viewer may have already seen a clip of the crime with the true criminal. Other musical or visual cues may also give viewers clues as to the true guilt or innocence of an individual offering a confession to a crime. Because viewers know, or will know, the true identity of the person who committed the crime in question, the use of an interrogation or a false confession (or both) can be used to demonstrate the moral character of the confessor. In exactly the same way, the use of a false confession in a fictional story can be used to demonstrate the morality of a police officer or even a whole police department. For example, a scene depicting the interrogation of a suspect that viewers know is not guilty may be used to demonstrate the use of immoral, coercive interrogation techniques by television detectives.
In nonfiction, the exploration of false confessions is often used to demonstrate the fallibility of the justice system. Because the idea that an innocent person would confess falsely to a crime that they did not commit seems incredibly counterintuitive to the average person, in-depth explorations (whether in documentaries, podcast series, newspaper or magazine expose, etc.) of the process by which false confessions can happen can be instrumental in helping people understand the reality of the phenomenon. The way a case or a confession is framed in the media and understood in popular culture also impacts our social construction of that person’s guilt or innocence.