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Leo’s New Book Explores Interrogation Practices

April 16, 2012

In their new book, Confessions of Guilt: From Torture to Miranda and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2012), Professor Richard A. Leo and co-author George Thomas III examine how interrogation practices have shifted throughout history—at periods utilizing and at other times avoiding extreme force.

“The acceptance of harsh interrogation tactics is always rooted at least in part in the changing perceptions of external and internal threats,” Leo and Thomas wrote. “Rather than a progression from more to less violence in obtaining confessions, the history of Anglo-American interrogation reveals that it has gravitated from one extreme to another.”

For example, New York passed legislation in 1828 requiring that suspects be warned of their right “to refuse to answer any question” posed by the magistrate and to advise counsel. However, by the 1880s police were largely responsible for questioning suspects and the United States had entered a post-Civil War culture in which crime and violence thrived. This period fostered the American interrogation method known as the “third degree.” In more recent history, after the 9/11 attacks, courts did not stop the Bush administration from using harsh interrogation techniques against “enemy combatants.”

Leo and Thomas also highlight troubling aspects of the Miranda warning.

Miranda changed the interrogation world in ways that were dramatic and profound, but ultimately superficial,” they said.

They argue that whether the warning adequately provides notice of what rights are waived when suspects talk to police is unclear; that courts generally presume statements given after Miranda waiver are not coerced; that some suspects, such as juveniles and the mentally impaired, do not have the capacity to waive Miranda rights; and that interrogators may construct a false confession for suspects, feeding details of the crime to create a believable narrative for prosecutors, judges, and juries.

“Thomas and Leo have explored the long history of the ways in which the law has dealt with confessions of guilt. The book is particularly relevant, and valuable, in its treatment of what led up to the famous Miranda case—and what happened afterwards,” Stanford Law School’s Marion Rick Kirkwood Professor of Law Lawrence M. Friedman said. “This is a comprehensive and deeply researched book, which examines with insight and passion a particularly dark and murky corner of the world of legal doctrine.”

Leo, who was granted tenure this year, is an award-winning author and specialist in police interrogation practices, false confessions and wrongful convictions. He has published more than 70 articles in leading scientific and legal journals as well as several other books. He is the recipient of multiple career and research awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship for his forthcoming book The Innocence Revolution, co-authored with Tom Wells; the Edwin H. Sutherland Outstanding Scholarship Award, the Law and Society Association Herbert Jacob Book Prize, and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Outstanding Book Award for his book Police Interrogation and American Justice (Harvard University Press, 2008); and the Saleem Shah Career Achievement Award from the American Psychology-Law Society.

“The grant of tenure to Professor Leo is a testament to who we are as a law school—focused on terrific teaching and demanding of constructive, engaged scholarship,” Dean Jeffrey Brand said. “Richard embodies all of that: accomplished in the classroom, a renowned scholar and recipient of a coveted Guggenheim award this year, and an interdisciplinarian who brings his doctorate in sociology and previous experience as a tenured faculty member at the University of California to USF. We are proud of Richard and all that he represents.”