Understanding False Confessions

An Edmond teenager made several visits as a missionary with Upendo Kids International to Kenya. Last summer, when he was 19 years old, he made his fourth trip to Kenya to serve at the Upendo Children's Home. This latest trip has ended in turmoil, with Matthew Lane Durham, now 20, accused of raping eight children, aged 5 to 9, during his stay at the orphanage.

Durham confessed to the crimes, giving a signed written confession to the co-founder of the orphanage and sending text messages to friends saying he was possessed by a demon named "Luke" who "gets what [he] wants." 

The former missionary is now on trial in a federal case charging him with eight counts of aggravated sexual abuse of children, eight counts of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places, and one count of traveling with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. The prosecution hinges largely upon Durham's confession--a confession which his defense attorney argues is false, coerced from a scared teenager on foreign soil, thousands of miles from home.

In his testimony at trial, Durham said that when he was first accused of molesting the children, he did not even understand what Eunice Menja, co-founder of the children's home, was accusing him of doing. When it became clear, he denied all allegations of wrongdoing. However, he says Menja was relentless, telling him that he was possessed by an evil spirit or suffering from multiple personalities.  According to the defense, it was only after the teen's passport had been confiscated and after Menja's persistence that he changed his stance from outright denial to saying, "I don't remember . . . I couldn't do this." He said that he believed the woman when she told him that he was possessed by a demon because she said there was evidence that he had sexually assaulted the children. When he asked to see the evidence, Menja allegedly told him, "You don't need to see the evidence. You know what you did."

The defense says that even Durham's "admissions" that he committed sex crimes while under the demon's influence indicate that the young man was simply apologizing for something he was told he did--not something he actually did. They point to a text message that reads: "I have absolutely not a single thread of memory of anything occurring. I hope you believe me when I say I would NEVER do anything to harm those kids ... I've been praying non-stop for everyone's forgiveness."

Durham said he asked for forgiveness because he had begun to believe the story the accusers planted.

It is hard for many of us to imagine how someone could possibly confess to a crime he or she did not commit. However, coerced false confessions are more common than one might think.

According to The Innocence Project, 1 in 4 people wrongly convicted of a crime but later exonerated through DNA evidence made a false confession or gave an incriminating statement. But why? There are many reasons that a person may confess to a crime he or she didn't commit. The Innocence Project lists the following causes of false confession:

  • duress 
  • coercion 
  • intoxication 
  • diminished capacity 
  • mental impairment 
  • ignorance of the law 
  • fear of violence 
  • the actual infliction of harm 
  • the threat of a harsh sentence 
  • misunderstanding the situation 

The organization finds that juvenile confessions are notoriously unreliable, as are those of people with mental disabilities, who are often seeking approval from authority in confessing. However, anyone can be susceptible to making a false confession: "Mentally capable adults also give false confessions due to a variety of factors like the length of interrogation, exhaustion or a belief that they can be released after confessing and prove their innocence later." 

In Durham's case, a jury has not yet reached a verdict. Deliberations are set to resume at 9:00 Friday morning.

Image Credit: Lwp Kommunicacio