False Confessions or Admissions
Astonishingly, more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.
Why do innocent people confess?
The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.
The factors that can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation include:
- diminished capacity
- mental impairment
- ignorance of the law
- fear of violence
- the actual infliction of harm
- the threat of a harsh sentence
- misunderstanding the situation
Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable — children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation.
People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired mental state due to mental illness, drugs or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt.
Mentally capable adults also give false confessions due to a variety of factors like the length of interrogation, exhaustion or a belief that they can be released after confessing and prove their innocence later.
From threats to torture
Sometimes law enforcement use harsh interrogation tactics with uncooperative suspects. But some police officers, convinced of a suspect’s guilt, occasionally use tactics so persuasive that an innocent person feels compelled to confess. For instance, it is perfectly legal for law enforcement to employ deception or trickery in the interrogation room. Some suspects are untruthfully told that there is already evidence pointing to their guilt, such as a forensic test that links the suspect to the crime. Some suspects have confessed to avoid physical harm or discomfort. Others are told they will be convicted with or without a confession and that their sentence will be more lenient if they confess. Some are told a confession is the only way to avoid the death penalty. These tactics can be persuasive in eliciting a false confession.
Reforms and Solutions
Mandatory Recording of Interrogations
The electronic recording of interrogations, from beginning to end, is the single best reform available to prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions. This record will improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects.
In some false confession cases, details of the crime are inadvertently communicated to a suspect by police during questioning. Later, when a suspect knows these details, the police take the knowledge as evidence of guilt. Often, threats or promises are made to the suspect off camera and then the camera is turned on, resulting in a false confession. Without an objective record of the entire custodial interrogation, it is difficult to gauge the reliability of the confession.
For law enforcement agencies, recording interrogations can prevent disputes about how a suspect was treated, create a clear record of a suspect’s statements and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. Recording interrogations can also deter officers from using illegal or devious tactics to secure a confession.
More than 20 states, from North Carolina to Massachusetts to Illinois, require the recording of custodial interrogations through law or court action. More than a thousand additional law enforcement agencies voluntarily record interrogations. A 2004 study conducted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of more than 200 locations that implemented this reform found that police departments overwhelmingly embrace the measure as good law enforcement practice whose time has come. Proactive policies like these have been adopted because the practice benefits police and prosecutors as well as innocent suspects.
"Police-Induced Confessions: Risk Factors and Recommendations" by Saul Kassin, et al., Law and Human Behavior
"The Substance of False Confessions" by Brandon Garrett, Stanford Law Review
False Confessions: Transcripts and Testimony
A collection created by Brandon Garrett and housed on the University of Virginia School of Law website that includes transcripts and testimony from the trials of people who falsely confessed and were later exonerated by DNA testing.
"Why Confessions Trump Innocence" by Saul Kassin, American Psychologist