False Confessions Happen

While the notion that someone would confess to a crime he or she did not commit may seem counterintuitive to casual observers, the reality is that false confessions occur regularly. According to the Innocence Project, of the 258 DNA exonerations they have handled to date, 25% have involved a false confession. If 10% of the two million men and women imprisoned in the United States are innocent, as is estimated by the Department of Justice, then we can extrapolate that as many as 50,000 of their convictions involved false confessions.

False confessions devastate lives, destroy cases and keep the true perpetrators of terrible crimes from being brought to justice.

How False Confessions Happen

A look at the interrogation techniques police are trained to use on suspects helps explain how confessions can be coerced from the innocent as well as the guilty.

According to the textbook "Criminal Interrogation and Confession," which is known as the interrogator's bible, a successful interrogation begins with isolating the suspect in the proverbial bare interrogation room:

The principal psychological factor contributing to a successful interrogation is privacy being alone with the person under investigation.... [I]n his own home, (the suspect) may be confident, indignant, or recalcitrant. He is more keenly aware of his rights and more reluctant to tell of his indiscretions within the walls of his home. Moreover, his family and other friends are nearby, their presence lending moral support....In his own office, the investigator possesses all the advantages. The atmosphere suggests the invincibility of the forces of the law.

In the article "True Crimes, False Confessions", false confession expert Professor Saul Kassin of Williams College (with co-author Gisli H. Gudjonsson), takes the reader through the nine-step process devised by the textbook's author, John E. Reid, showing how, after isolating the suspect, the interrogator:

  1. "confronts the suspect with unwavering assertions of guilt.
  2. develops 'themes' that psychologically justify or excuse the crime.
  3. interrupts all efforts at denial and defense.
  4. overcomes the suspect's factual, moral and emotional objections.
  5. ensures that the passive suspect does not withdraw.
  6. shows sympathy and understanding and urges the suspect to cooperate.
  7. offers a face-saving alternative construal of the alleged guilty act.
  8. gets the suspect to recount the details of his or her crime.
  9. converts the latter statement into a full written or oral confession."

These tactics are described by false-confession experts as powerfully coercive behavioral techniques that are proven effective on the innocent as well as the guilty. In "Why Do People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit?" Prof. Steven Drizin explains how the tactics yield a confession, true or false:

"These tactics are designed to destroy the suspect's confidence that he will emerge from the interrogation without being harmed and to make the suspect think that he is powerless to bring an end to the interrogation unless he confesses.

"Once the suspect is on the brink of hopelessness, the interrogator engages in tactics designed to persuade the suspect that the benefits of confessing outweigh the costs of continued resistance and denial. Here, the interrogator makes offers to the suspect, ranging from low-end inducements like appeals to the suspect's conscience ("the truth will set you free") or religious beliefs ("God will forgive you"), to suggestions that the confession will be treated more favorably by those in the system with the power to determine his fate ("judges react more favorably to remorseful defendants"), to the more coercive inducements which expressly or by implication promise leniency or threaten harm. These "minimization" tactics suggest to the suspect two scenarios of how the crime was committed, one which is premeditated or cold-blooded, the other which is morally or legally justifiable (it was an accident, self-defense, or impulsive) and urge the suspect to choose the lesser of two evils. If a suspect claims he has no memory of the crime, the interrogator often suggests that the suspect committed the crime during a blackout or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These tactics build upon one another and are rehashed again and again throughout the interrogation until a suspect breaks down and says 'I did it.'"

Many casual observers of the criminal justice system are surprised to learn that it is perfectly legal for police to lie to suspects. In the Peter Reilly case mentioned above, police lied to the teenager that he had failed a lie-detector test. Applying relentless pressure, police were able to convince Reilly that he was guilty despite his having no conscious memory of murdering his mother. The courts have signed off on this tactic, apparently considering these lies small and inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.

Everyone is Susceptible, Some are More Vulnerable

According to Drizin, juveniles are among the most vulnerable to these techniques. "Juveniles are, of course, less mature than adults and have less life experience on which to draw. They may also be more compliant, especially when pressured by adult authority figures. Juveniles are thus less equipped to cope with stressful police interrogation and less likely to possess the psychological resources to resist the pressures of accusatorial police questioning." In a study Drizin did with Richard Leo, juveniles were disproportionately represented among the false confessors, and the majority of juvenile false confessors were between the ages of 14 and 17, the age range in which many alleged juvenile offenders are tried as adults.

Martin Tankleff had just turned 17, when he found his mother brutally murdered and his father clinging to life after being attacked. After calling 911, he was immediately taken to police headquarters and underwent harsh interrogation by homicide investigators. He was told that his hair was found in his mother's dead fingers and that his father awoke from his coma to identify young Martin as his attacker. Although he was never Mirandized and maintained his innocence, police finally convinced Marty that he must have blacked out. Confused and scared, Marty came to believe his interrogators that he blacked out and committed the crime.  Although not one bit of forensic evidence linked Marty to the crime scene, he was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison. After serving close to 18 yeas, his conviction was finally overturned in 2007. (see www.Martytankleff.org)

Mentally Handicapped people with lower IQs are also more susceptible than others to being persuaded they are guilty; they also often want to please authoritative figures and may confess because they believe that is what they are supposed to do. In the well documented West Memphis 3 Case in Arkansas (www.Freewestmemphis3.org) Jessie Misskelley, Jr., 16 years old and mentally disabled with an IQ of 67 at the time of the murders, was convicted of a triple murder based solely on a confession that, like most false statements, failed to match crime scene evidence. In his so-called confession, he made incriminating statements that placed him with the three murdered children at 9:00 am on the day of the murders. The problem with this statement was that the victims were actually in school during that time. The West Memphis police, unhappy with Jessie's statement, continued to suggest Jessie admit to his involvement at times more closely associated with estimated time of death. He finally agreed to his interrogators prompting until they were satisfied when he answered that he and his co-defendants were with the children in the evening. Never mind that he and his friends had strong alibis for their whereabouts that evening. Misskelley's false confession was also used to convict Jason Baldwin, sentenced to life without parole, and Damien Echols, who is currently on death row in Arkansas. (FalseConfessions.org is advocating for a new trial for West Memphis 3.)

The case of Doug Warnery is also very infromative on this issue as is that of Earl Washington, who,after two days of questioning, confessed to five different murders, four of which were not believed. The authorites chose to beleive the fifth confession, of which he was convcited of murder and sentenced to death. At one point he came within 9 days of execution.