News 03.14.11

False Confessions Happen More Than We Think

After 17 years behind bars, Marty Tankleff was cleared of murdering of his parents and released from prison in January 2008 when prosecutors announced that they were dropping the charges.

Tankleff allegedly made false admissions of guilt after hours of interrogation.

A guest post on Discover magazine’s website written at the NSF Science: Becoming the Messenger Workshop at University of Nebraska-Lincoln by Krista Forrest, Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Kearney highlighted Tankleff’s wrongful conviction and described why innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit.

According to research, lying about evidence increases a suspect’s likelihood of falsely confessing. This effect is even stronger for the innocent, who may confess with the expectation that once this evidence is tested, they will be freed. Unfortunately they don’t know that a confession is all the court needs.

While it can be hard to understand why someone would falsely confess to a crime, psychological research has provided some answers – and DNA exonerations have proven that the problem is more widespread than many people think. In approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.

For many reasons – including mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics – innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.

Tankleff was a teenager when he woke up to find his mother dead and his father unconscious in the family’s New York home. His father would die weeks later in a hospital. He was convicted of their murders two years later based partly on an admission of guilt that he says was coerced. According to police, Tankleff told officers he may have “blacked out” and committed the crime. He was sentenced to 50 years to life.

The electronic recording of interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, is the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions


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Read more about Marty Tankleff’s case here

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