Arson is a crime that is ripe for false confessions. Arson science is anything but exact. Even in cases where investigators can determine a fire was set intentionally, it is rarely the case that they can know with certainty who set it. This is why investigators almost always need a confession to close the case. And this is where the potential for false confessions lies. Some of the most brutal psychological interrogations I have seen on tape have occurred in suspected arson cases. Fortunately for Nicholas Mears, all of these tactics were captured on tape by the Sioux Falls, S.D. police department which has been recording interviews for some time. When faced with the recording during a defense motion to suppress, Judge Joseph Neiles tossed out the confession, citing the fact that Detective Jerry Mundt "repeatedly lied to the defendant about a claimed videotape of him starting the fire" and ruling that Mears' confession was "beyond all possible doubt" involuntary and therefore not admissible as evidence in court. Going a step further, Judge Neilus also wrote that the facts in the suspect's confession were "almost laughable" and it was "difficult to believe how any fire could have been set in the manner described by the defendant."
In a soon to be released article in the Wisconsin Law Review, Richard Leo, Peter Neufeld, Brad Hall, Amy Vatner and I argue that judges should do exactly what Judge Neiles did in this case -- after evaluating the voluntariness of the confession, they should assess the confession's reliability by comparing the facts in the confession to the objectively knowable facts of the case and also look to see if the confession lead the police to any other evidence of which they were not aware. Under our proposed standard, even confessions which may be considered voluntary should be excluded from evidence if they are unreliable because the power of confession evidence is so strong that juries may convict even on the basis of unreliable or false confessions.
Mears, who spent a month in jail, before the confession was tossed, settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount against the detective for "intentional infliction of emotional distress."