Facebook Confessions: Will They Hold Up In Court? (Guest Post)

Joe Suhre is the principal attorney of Suhre & Associates, LLC with offices in Chicago, Illinois, Dayton, Ohio, and Columbus, Ohio. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.

On September 6, 2013, Matthew Cordle confessed on YouTube to killing a man while DUI. Facebook has logged other confessions on similar crimes. Do these social media confessions hold up in court?

Just sentence them already

It seems an open and shut case; the confession is right there. Guilty. Right? The prosecution will have an easy time with this case. Or will they?

In the case of Matthew Cordle, it was uncomplicated for the prosecution because he had already been arrested for the crime and then pleaded guilty. But what would have happened if he had changed his mind and decided to plead innocent? What then?

Is a confession the same as a guilty plea?

There is actually only one time in the judicial process where your own words could condemn you outright. That is when you answer the question, “How do you plea?” When you answer, “Guilty,” it definitely speeds up the process. However, a confession is not the same.

A simple confession of “I did it,” may not be enough evidence to go to trial.

What is the evidence?

A confession, especially one in writing or on video, may be submitted as evidence by the prosecution. But in the case of Facebook, how could one rule out hackers or even a friend who knows the defendant’s password? And how does one know a video confession isn’t the result of blackmail or even a gun to the person’s head?

In the case of Matthew Cordle, it is hard not to think his video confession wasn’t some sort of grandstanding since as mentioned above there were mountains of evidence already against him. Had Matthew changed his mind and pleaded innocent, his video confession would have merely been added to the other evidence. But without the other evidence, his video could have been explained as a slick anti-drunk-driving ad.

Detailed confessions

Confessions, whether on Facebook, YouTube, or in writing could become solid evidence when minute, unpublished details of the crime are included as part of the confession. When details that could only be known by the perpetrator are included in a Facebook confession, the confession becomes an important piece of evidence. However, authorship of the post will still need to be answered.

Contaminated confessions

But even a detailed confession given to a police investigator can have problems. Since 1976, over 40 detailed confessions to violent crimes have been overturned by overwhelming DNA evidence. Turns out each confession was contaminated by overzealous investigators that fed privileged information to their suspects that was later transcribed as information offered by the suspect.

It is well known that some people, including the mentally challenged, mentally ill, juveniles, and weak-willed individuals can be led to confess to crimes they didn’t commit; but unfortunately, when their confession has been contaminated to include specific details, juries have had no problem accepting the confession at face value.

Holding fast to the 5th Amendment

Torturing confessions out of suspects was common in Europe at the time the framers of the Constitution insisted that a suspect could not be compelled “to be a witness against himself.” The problem with confessions is that, even though they could be used as a witness against the suspect, the caveat is whether it was compelled or not.

However, just because investigators didn’t use a rack or pull out a suspect’s fingernails doesn’t mean that the confession they extracted wasn’t compelled. Eddie Lowry, a man accused of rape that spent 10 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him, stated that his confession was the result of persistent interrogators who finally pushed him beyond his endurance.

ConclusionOne reason to always retain an experienced criminal defense attorney is that he or she would be familiar with the rules of evidence. Any social media confession would have to pass the scrutiny of these rules. If it doesn’t, it would be thrown out. The jury wouldn’t be allowed to see it. If it were allowed, however, it could be submitted as evidence; but just that, evidence.