Police Induced False Confessions
People would assume that an individual who admits to committing a crime would be telling the truth, however, that is not always the case. One of the most leading causes of wrongful convictions are police induced false confessions. Police and courts do not usually keep records of these false confessions, and if the offender is convicted, it is much harder to prove they are innocent. False confessions are the most incriminating and persuasive false evidence of guilt that the state can bring against an innocent defendant.
Some individuals who are convicted and incarcerated for serious crimes they did not commit, are later exonerated by DNA evidence. This opens a door for those who have made these false confessions which brings us to think about what made them in terms of the mistaken persecution or coercive interrogation.
Police Induced False Confessions
“Over the years, countless numbers of innocent people have been wrongfully convicted, imprisoned, and sometimes even sentenced to death after confessing to crimes they did not commit” (Kassin, S. M. (2014)) A false confession is an admission of guilt to a criminal act for which the confessor did not commit. But what really makes a person falsely confess? There is no single cause that may lead someone to confessing to something they didn’t do, but there are several things that might impact it. This could include someone covering up for a friend or loved one, someone who may be mentally incapacitated, or someone with certain psychological traits and dispositions that make them more vulnerable and easily pressured. False confessions may seem rare, but they happen quite regularly and as a result, lead to wrongful convictions.
Police induced false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. There is a multistep process involving influence, persuasion, and compliance along with psychological coercive in a police interrogation to elicit a confession. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1)) To understand why some criminal suspects give false confessions, we must first acknowledge how police interrogations work and where they go wrong.
The first stage in the interrogation process is the misclassification error. This stage usually occurs when a detective misclassifies an innocent person as guilty. A person may be picked either because they fit the general description, wrong place wrong time so the police notice them, or someone falsely identified the suspect. During an interrogation, police tend to ask
“behavior provoking” questions and observe an individual’s verbal and nonverbal reactions to access whether or not they are telling the truth. Police are trained to accurately distinguish between what is true and what is not, but this isn’t always reliable due to poor judgment. This judgment of truth or deception becomes a pivot point in the investigation, determining whether a suspect is to be released or interrogated. (Kassin, S. M. (2014))
The second stage is the coercion error. Once a detective believes the suspect is guilty, they begin an accusatorial interrogation. When there is no other evidence on the suspect, getting a confession becomes extremely important. Police used to use a psychological coercive technique such as inflicting psychical harm and discomfort to the suspect, which would leave them to perceive with no choice but to comply with the interrogator’s demands. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1)) That was put to an end after the Supreme Court case – Brown v Mississippi (1936)- ruled that confessions extracted by physical coercion were inadmissible in court. (Kassin, S. M. (2014)) A new psychological approach to interrogation was developed that relied on trickery and deceptions usually consisting of promises of leniency and threats of harsher punishments. “The custodial environment and physical confinement are intended to isolate and disempower the suspect.” (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1)) The more stressful and unpleasant it becomes, the more intense and longer it lasts, leaving the suspect worn out and vulnerable. This makes the suspect believe there is no other way out except to do what the detectives say. When the suspect experiences this, their confession and compliance are considered involuntary with the influence of coercion. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1))
The third stage is the contamination error. When police use these psychological coercive methods it not only helps to explain how and why a suspect confesses but often consists of a subsequent narrative usually referred to as the postadmission narrative (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1)). The postadmission narrative is a clear “I did it” statement that attempts to influence and shape the suspects story into a confession so that it successfully incriminates them and leads to their conviction. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1)) For example, interrogators tend to use a technique of scenario-based incentives to attribute a motive to the suspect and pressure them into admitting to the crime by suggesting facts or details of what happened. Thus, making the suspect believe that they did it and making their confession seem admissible and voluntary which lead to the elicitation and construction of a false confession. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1))
Even though psychological coercion is one of the main causes of false confessions, there are psychological/personality traits that can lead people to make them. Some individuals are more susceptible and easily pressured when it comes to being interrogated. “Those who are highly suggestible tend to high levels of anxiety, poor memories, low assertiveness as well as a low self-esteem which makes them more likely to falsely confess,” (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1)). Individuals who are developmentally disabled, cognitively impaired, or have a mental illness are also prone to making false confessions because it makes it harder for the person to fully comprehend the context or complexity of a certain situations or interactions and the consequences of their actions. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1))
Juveniles are another group that are more likely to falsely or involuntary confess because they don’t understand their rights and are usually taught to please authority figures. This makes them more vulnerable to the interrogation techniques and their confession rates varied with age: 12 to 13-year-olds 78%, 15 to 16-year-olds 72%, and 59% among young adults. “With the adolescent brain still developing, juveniles exhibit immaturity of judgement, focusing more on short-term gains and losses rather than on the longer-term consequences of their actions.” (Kassin, S. M. (2014))
Not only are there different types of people who falsely confess, but there are different types of false confessions people can make. There have been three distinct types of false confessions: voluntary, compliant, and persuaded. Voluntary false confessions happen when the person knowingly confesses without any police pressure or force. Psychologist and researchers suggest that there are various reasons a person may voluntarily confess which include: to protect someone else, pathological desire for notoriety or fame, the need to expiate guilt over prior transgressions, need for acceptance or self-punishment, or inability to distinguish what is fact from false evidence due to a mental disability. (Hritz, A., Blau, M., & Tomezsko , S. (n.d.))
Compliant false confessions are usually impacted by police coercion and are the most common. These happen when the person confesses to put the interrogation to an end or to receive a reward or promise in exchange for a confession. These confessions are most likely to occur in situations where the suspect wants to escape the stress and pressure of the harsh interrogation and to do so, they give in and admit guilt when they know they are innocent. Suspects are led to believe that “the short-term benefits of a false confession outweigh the long-term costs of the interrogation.” (Hritz, A., Blau, M., & Tomezsko , S. (n.d.))
Persuaded false confessions, also known as internalized false confessions, are pretty rare but extremely prejudicial when entered into evidence. These happen when police interrogation strategies cause an innocent person to second guess themselves and doubt their memory. Then, leading them to be temporarily persuaded that they could have more likely than not committed the crime despite having any memory of doing so. (Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1))
Since false confessions were happening so frequently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the person detained, prior to police questioning, must be clearly informed of their constitutional rights against self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment) and rights to counsel (Sixth Amendment). (McBride, A. (n.d.)) This is known as the Miranda Warning or Miranda Rights- named after Miranda vs. Arizona case in 1966- which was put in effect to protect criminal suspects from inherently coercive police interrogations and prevent confessions that were considered inadmissible or unreliable in court. A year after the Miranda decision was made, in re Gault (1967) expanded these rights and procedures to youth when facing delinquency allegations in juvenile court. (Kassin, S. M., Drizin, S. A., Grisso, T., Gudjonsson , G. H., Leo, R. A., & Redlich, A. D. (2009, July 15)) There were still some cases where criminal suspects were read their rights and confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, which led to more ways to prevent it from happening.
One of the most important safeguards is to video record the entire process of all suspect interviews and interrogations. Video recording has two benefits for both the suspect and law enforcement: “First, it will increase accountability among police officers and hopefully deter their use of coercive interrogation techniques. Second, it provides an accurate factual record for the judges and juries to assess the voluntariness and credibility of confessions presented in court.” (Kassin, S. M. (2014))
Other benefits for the innocent suspect include ensuring their rights are protected, developing a deterrent against coercive tactics that might not be recorded on video, and informing investigators, prosecutors, judges and juries if the suspect has any mental constraints or other qualities that may make them more susceptible to falsely confess. Other benefits for law enforcement include having a recorded statement of what happened by the suspect makes it difficult for them to change it later on, helps capture small details that may have been missed, allows officers to focus more on the interrogation rather than taking notes throughout it, and enhances public understanding, trust, and confidence in law enforcement. (False Confessions & Recording of Custodial Interrogations. (n.d.))
Video recording isn’t the only thing that has benefitted, but advances in DNA technology and testing has improved how law enforcement investigates cases and interpret forensic evidence. Exonerated by DNA has also made an impact people who were wrongfully convicted and reforming the criminal justice system.
Overall, I believe that police induced false confessions lead to many wrongful convictions which is probably one of the many reasons why our prisons are so overcrowded. These false confessions definitely still happen, but not as often or in ways it used to due to the laws and requirements that have been made to prevent it. I also think that it is extremely important for law enforcement to take more into consideration the mental health of suspects and how some people are more prone to making false confessions than others which is why recording the entire interrogation is a good idea. Video recording is important because it allows police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries to go back and review details of the confession, where it came from, and helps to determine if the confession provided was actually given by the confessor.
- Gross, S., & Possley, M. (2016, June 12). For 50 Years, You've Had "The Right to Remain Silent". Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/False-Confessions-.aspx.
- Hritz, A., Blau, M., & Tomezsko , S. (n.d.). False Confessions. Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/sociallaw/student_projects/FalseConfessions.html#_edn10.
- Leo, R. A. (2009, September 1). False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications. Retrieved December 1, 2019, from http://jaapl.org/content/37/3/332.
- Kassin, S. M. (2014). False Confessions. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 112–121. doi: 10.1177/2372732214548678
- Kassin, S. M., Drizin, S. A., Grisso, T., Gudjonsson , G. H., Leo, R. A., & Redlich, A. D. (2009, July 15). Police-Induced Confessions: Risk Factors and Recommendations. doi: 10.1007/s10979-009-9188-6
- McBride, A. (n.d.). Miranda vs. Arizona (1966). Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/supremecourt/rights/landmark_miranda.html.
- False Confessions & Recording Of Custodial Interrogations. (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2019, from https://www.innocenceproject.org/false-confessions-recording-interrogations/.
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