The Tell Tale Heart

If you committed a crime and got away with it, what would it take for you to turn yourself in?

Recently I had my first case where my client's crime only came to light when he had a change in heart and confessed. In his case, it's unlikely that anyone would have even known that a crime was committed, much less that he was the guilty party, if he hadn't decided to come clean.

I surveyed other lawyers in my office and found only one who had seen such a case. She told me that many years ago, she had gotten a phone call from a man. The man had gotten her name because she had represented his brother previously, and he felt he needed to speak to a lawyer. He had been involved in a hit and run accident years earlier. He had essentially gotten away with it. Apparently, no one got his license plate and he waited months, eventually years, for the police to come knocking on his door. He finally decided that he couldn't live with the guilt any longer.

The lawyer did some research and found that no one had died in the accident, and, therefore, the statute of limitations had run. Still, she advised her client against turning himself in, but the client persisted and, ultimately they went to the police department together.

The police took his statement, released him, did some research, and ultimately contacted him and let him know that no charges would be brought because of the statute of limitations.

The man asked, then, if he could have the contact information for the victim so that he could try to make some reparations. Ultimately, according to the lawyer, they contacted the family, but the family wasn't interested in anything more than an apology.

None of the other attorneys that I spoke to, though, have had similar stories. So, it seems as though it's rather rare that someone who gets away with a crime later turns themselves in. Or, perhaps it's rare that these cases are prosecuted.

In my case, my client got away with stealing from someone for quite a while. They never noticed, but he eventually stopped. A few months later, he decided to confess and offered to pay back the money he had taken. Unfortunately for him, the statute of limitations hadn't run and the victim decided to contact the police.

My client was very interesting in that he was so resigned to whatever punishment was coming his way. It wasn't a large sum of money, it was only charged as a misdemeanor, he didn't have any criminal record, so I was certain that I could get him a decent plea bargain. But my client kept telling me that he was willing to go to prison, if that's what he had to do. (It didn't come to that.)

Which leads me to a few questions...

First, for the other criminal defense practitioners, are these cases as uncommon as they appear to be? How many cases like this have you seen? Is there any fear of false confessions? If a person came to you and wanted to turn himself in, would you ask for corroborating evidence? What advice would you give to someone who wanted to turn themself in?

Second, to everyone, do you think that someone should be given preferential treatment because they confessed their crime? Should they be offered a better plea bargain because they saved the state the time and expense of investigating the crime? (Although, in the former case, of the hit and run, it appears that the police did investigate but did not have enough information to solve the case.) But what about in the latter case, where even the victim was unknowing and may have remained unknowing if my client hadn't confessed?


  1. I once had a client who walked in to confess that he deliberately murdered his girlfriend, who was also the mother of his baby daughter. It had been a year or so since he had been questioned and the investigation was closed with the death judged to be accidental.

  2. And, if you don't mind telling us, what did you do?

  3. I haven't had anyone walk in and want to confess to a crime the police didn't know they had comitted. However, the vast vast majority of my clients admit to me when they did what they were acused of doing and just want help navigating the system. I did hear of a case where a cop came to an attorney and told her he beat a man to death and that he needed her help to turn himself in. The lawyer made a few phone calls discovered the man wasn't dead, but had gone to the hospital and would not say who beat him up. Because there was a lot going on on both sides (Officer beat the man up because he was sleeping with officer's wife.)lawyer told him to just go home and keep his temper in check.

  4. 1. I've never had such a case (been doing crim law for about 8 years) A colleague has a case where guy was arrested for attempted rape, et al, and confessed to two murders that had been written off by the medical examiner as natural causes. He's stated that he'll be very upset if the state doesn't file the case capital and kill him, so I think there are some serious mental health/ false confession issues.

    My advice would be not to confess, or try to confess/make reparation anonymously. If the person really wanted to confess and it wasn't really serious, I'd try to get the DA on board and work something out. (see #2) If it was serious, I'd tell them to keep quiet. Or join a monastery/convent or join the French Foreign Legion.

    2. The person should definitely get preferential treatment. They've admitted wrongdoing without being forced to do so by being caught. The confession is a demonstration that their own conscience is punishing them and will (hopefully) keep them on the straighter and narrower. Two of the traditional purposes of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation are taken care of by conscience. It renders the third, removal, moot, leaving only the fourth, retribution.
    I think that retribution/expiation is why people would confess to an offense they would otherwise escape. They feel guilty that the other person has suffered a loss and they (the confessor) must suffer some external (non-conscience) punishment.
    The DAs I work with would look very favorably on someone like this, so long as the crime wasn't so serious that there was a risk of publicity/politics entering the discussion.

  5. I have a question. I'm not a lawyer, you guys are, maybe you can explain it to me - I had thought that a confession was not sufficient to convict a person, but that some other evidence must be present that a crime was, in fact, committed. Was that an issue in the case of this remorseful thief?

  6. As a matter of public policy, I would think that you would want to give preferential treatment to people who voluntarily confess to crimes...

  7. Yes banana -- the corpus delicti.

  8. In five years as a prosecutor, I was never aware of a case in someone confessed to a crime that would not otherwise have come to light.

    If I ever had had a case like that I would definitely have given the person a substantial break. Unless it were a murder, I would certainly not recommend any imprisonment at all, and I would make sure the sentence was far more lenient than whatever the standard sentence would be for that kind of crime.

  9. Of course, I might also scrutinize your client's motives for confessing pretty closely. Was there some selfish motive? Was he about to get caught anyway for some reason? Etc.

    (If it were really just a pure act of conscience, I would hold much higher hopes for rehabilitation than if some other motivation were at play.)

  10. I'm the one who represented the murderer who walked in and confessed. Blonde, you asked what happened. Well...I was assigned to the case (I was a PD at the time) after the confession and arrest so I was not consulted before the fact. The police and proseuctors had previously written the case off as either an accident or an unprovable homicide. They were, as you might guess, surprised when the client showed up and sua sponte asked to give a taped statement. Indicted for first degree murder. Pled to second murder. Still in prison.

  11. Wow, that's rough. I wonder if he regrets coming forward.

    As far as whether corroborating evidence is needed, I think that the answer is that they definitely cannot try a person on their confession alone. But I think they could bring charges while investigating, and accept a plea bargain. (Part of the reason for the leniency of a plea bargain is that you saved the state some time, including, here, investigating.)

    In my case, if he went to trial, it would've been fairly easy to get the corroborating evidence - they just would've needed to get some bank records, probably the signatures on withdraw slips. There's nothing that says that the confession can't be the jumping off point for the corroborating evidence, and there's nothing that says that the corroborating evidence has to be substantial. (It certainly doesn't have to be enough that it would've proven the crime without the confession.)