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Fact Sheet: False Confessions

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful.

About the author: This article was written by Jennifer Schell, EAPL-S co-president and representative for the Netherlands. Jennifer is a Ph.D. student at Maastricht University (Netherlands).

View this document in it's full glory by downloading the pdf here.

Remember to also read our fact sheet on criminal profiling!

What are false confessions?

In the criminal justice system, a confession is a written or oral statement in which a person admits to being guilty of a crime. A false confession is a written or oral statement in which a person incorrectly admits to being guilty of a crime. In recent years, several cases have emerged in which an innocent person had confessed to a crime, he or she had not committed. The consequences of such false confessions are often that innocent people get convicted of crimes they didn’t do. 

The Central Park Jogger case

In November 1989, a female jogger was beaten, raped and left for dead in New York’s Central Park. Shortly after the crime, five 14-16 year-old African-American and Hispanic-American boys were arrested. They were interrogated until they confessed to this horrific crime. After the police interrogation, all boys said that they were innocent and that their confessions were not true. But based on their initial confessions, they all were convicted even though there was no other evidence. More than a decade later, Matias Reyes, a prison inmate, confessed that he had committed the crime. DNA evidence proved his story (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004). The Central Park Jogger case is one example of a miscarriage of justice because of false confessions.

Research on False Confessions

Research findings enable us to better understand why innocent suspects confess. In 1985, Kassin and Wrightsman described three different types of false confessions:

  • voluntary false confession
  • coerced-compliant false confession
  • coerced-internalized false confession

Voluntary confessions are made freely by a person, without any pressure or coercion. Examples of voluntary false confessions are to protect somebody or to gain fame. Coerced-compliant confessions are confessions that originate from pressure during the police interrogation. In this category, the confessor knows that he/she is innocent but confesses in order to get out of the police interrogation. Coerced-internalized confessions by contrast are believed to be true by the confessor. They usually occur after the police has exposed him or her to misinformation/false evidence. An example of false evidence is to tell the suspect that his/her fingerprints had been found at the crime scene.

In 2004, Drizin and Leo described several key features of false confessions. By comparing and contrasting 125 cases of proven false confessions in the US from 1971 to 2002, they were able to find several statistics:

  • 93% were made by males,
  • 81% occurred in murder cases,
  • 74% of the times the real perpetrator was found,
  • 30% of the cases involved multiple false confessions from several innocent suspects,
  • 63% were younger than 25, and four out of five of the false confessors who went to trial were convicted (for more information see Drizin & Leo, 2004).

It still remains unclear what exactly triggers a false confession. By looking at documented cases, it seems that often a combination of several factors lead to a false confession. The chain of reactions starts with a crime that has been committed. Then the police searches for suspects. Once a possible suspect is found, he or she is brought to the police station for a preinterrogation interview. In general, the purpose of such an interview is to find out whether the person is being truthful or not. If judged as being truthful, the person is no longer a suspect. If judged as lying, the suspect will be interrogated.

If judged guilty, the suspect has to be informed about the constitutional rights to remain silence and have a lawyer present (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966). In the US, these rights are called Miranda Rights. If suspects give up their rights and agree to talk to the police, the interrogation process begins. Although ‘third degree’ tactics (for instance, inflicting physical or mental pain) are no longer allowed, the modern interrogation is still a powerful one. Several social influence methods are used, for example, isolating the suspect in a barely furnished, soundproof, small room. Often interrogations take several hours. The average interrogation length of documented, proven false confessions is 16.3 hours (Drizin & Leo, 2004). Furthermore, the Reid interrogation technique is often used by police, which is a very confrontational technique (for a detailed review see Inbau, Reid, Buckley, & Jayne, 2001). Moreover, situational and personal factors play a vital role as well (for a detailed overview of the literature see Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004).

Conclusion

False confessions are a potential danger for causing miscarriages of justice. New reforms are needed to decrease the risk of false confessions. Many have argued that interrogation practices need to be changed (e.g., Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004). Such reforms call for the exclusion of introducing false evidence, threats of harm, promises of leniency and Miranda violations. Furthermore, time limits for interrogations should be introduced. Lastly, video- and audio recordings of interrogations should be mandatory.

Quick Summary

  • False confessions happen when people admit to committing crimes that they did not actually do.
  • False confessions can happen voluntarily (without pressure), when people feel pressured, or when people mistakenly start to believe they committed a crime.
  • Bad police practices can cause false confessions.

Where can I get more information?

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References

  1. Drizin, S. A., & Leo, R. A. (2004). The problem of false confessions in post-DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, 891-1007.
  2. Inbau, F. E., Reid, J. E., Buckley, J. P., &  Jayne, B. P. (2001). Criminal interrogation and confessions (4th ed.). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.
  3. Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (2004). The psychology of confession evidence: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 35–69.
  4. Kassin, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1985). Confession evidence. In S. Kassin & L. Wrightsman (Eds.), The psychology of evidence and trial procedure (pp. 67-94). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  5. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 336 (1966).

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