In 1991, Huwe Burton confessed to killing his mother. He did not kill his mother. 30 years later, after spending 20 years in prison, he was exonerated. The interrogation which produced his confession was designed to produce a confession. We have all heard of the many cases where DNA evidence proves unequivocally, that someone previously found guilty of a crime, was not guilty at all. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney. Do not waive that right. As soon as it appears, even slightly, that the police are questioning you as if they believe you have committed a crime, the right to an attorney attaches. Too often, those accused of crimes act as if they believe it is the job of police to exonerate them. Once you say, “I want to speak to an attorney,” the police are required to stop questioning you. The Fifth Amendment guarantees your right to not incriminate yourself. Nevertheless, if, after reading you your rights, you proceed with the interrogation, you can be found to have waived these important rights and the police can use “anything you say” against you. As an expert on false confessions, psychologist Saul Kassin would be the first to tell you standard interrogation techniques are designed to put psychological pressure on suspects and offer escape hatches that can easily cause an innocent person to confess. Being tired, stressed, or traumatized add to the likelihood that an innocent suspect will confess to a crime she or he did not commit. When a jury hears a confession, they are highly likely to convict, even if there is other evidence tending to show the confession is suspect.
And while acting without an attorney’s input may not result in you spending years in prison for a crime you did not commit, the concept that it is critical to speak to an attorney PRIOR TO making decisions with legal consequences applies in every aspect of any matter of legal consequence you may have to make decisions about. If you are contemplating a divorce or anticipating having to go through child custody proceedings, such matters have serious consequences which can negatively impact your life for years if you decide to act without the benefit of an attorney’s advice. If you are being asked to sign any contract, spend the time and a bit of cash to get advice BEFORE you sign anything. If you feel you are being harassed at your place of employment, speak to an attorney BEFORE you engage your employer’s Human Resources department. If you have been injured on the job, schedule an appointment with an attorney BEFORE speaking to your employer or a doctor your employers asks you to speak with and making decisions that could completely negate your right to receive appropriate compensation for your injury. If you have a personal injury, to not bang down the guilty party’s insurer trying to settle your claim BEFORE you speak to an attorney. Exercise common sense and speak to an attorney BEFORE your rights are permanently negatively affected. Telling anyone that you have to speak to an attorney BEFORE you can make any decision is always the right choice. I cannot tell you the number of times I wish a potential client had called me BEFORE signing document or making decisions that should have never been made without the advice of an attorney. No one has the right to force you into make a decision with legal consequences without the advice of an attorney.