The Truth About False Confessions

Frequently Asked Questions

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People Need To Know

 

Q: What is the biggest misconception about false confessions?

 

A: That no one would confess to a crime he didn’t commit, except maybe someone deranged or subject to extreme compulsion such as torture. 

 

Q: Why would an innocent person confess?

 

A: There’s no shortage of reasons.  Could be desire for notoriety – when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, over 200 people claimed to have done it.  Maybe desire to protect a friend or loved one, or fear (if, say, the mob tells you to take the heat or else).  Some people, such as those prone to blackouts, actually come to believe they committed the crime.  But in most cases, it’s a function of interrogation tactics geared to break people down.  These tactics succeed too well – they break down innocent people. 

 

Q: You mean lengthy interrogations under harsh lights in a cramped room, that sort of thing?

 

A: Not necessarily, although conditions of interrogation contribute to the problem.  I mean what some social scientists call “confrontation” and “minimization,” which can be over-simplified into “threats” and “promises.”  Interrogators will tell a suspect that they have all sorts of evidence -- for example, that he flunked a polygraph or there’s an eyewitness placing him at the crime scene.  They will threaten him with the most severe punishment unless he confesses.  Then they dangle the carrot, suggesting mitigating circumstances and directly or indirectly promising lenient treatment if only he confesses.  At a certain point, the suspect concludes that he is simply better off confessing.  It may be a foolish decision, but it’s not irrational.  It’s the product of a cost-benefit analysis – an analysis often skewed by fear, fatigue, and ignorance. 

 

Q: Do false confessors tend to be mentally retarded or at least of very low intelligence?

 

A: Again, not necessarily.  It’s true that you don’t find many teachers or doctors or businessmen among the ranks of false confessors.  People with a greater awareness of the protections afforded by the legal system are more likely to trust that if they hold out they will be vindicated.  But plenty of false confessors are ordinary folks of ordinary intelligence.  Some of them are highly suggestible (meaning they lack confidence in their own beliefs) or overly trusting of authority figures or easily intimidated.  And, yes, quite a few are borderline mentally retarded or low intelligence.  But they’re regular folks, American citizens who suddenly find themselves in a Kafkaesque nightmare. 

 

Q: Still, most “normal” people could never confess falsely?

 

A: Not so fast.  In one social science experiment, freshmen at Williams College confessed to something they didn’t do (pushing the wrong button and causing a computer system to crash) when confronted with false evidence.  Laboratory experiments can’t replicate the real world, but there’s reason to think that even the well-educated and well-to-do could be prone to confess falsely under the “right” circumstances. 

 

Q: How do we know that false confessions occur in the real world? 

 

A: The breakthrough was DNA testing.  Already, 187 people (as of November, 2006) convicted of crimes have been exonerated by DNA.  To the amazement of almost everyone, more than a fifth of them had confessed. 

 

Q: That’s still just a few dozen people.  What makes you think the problem is widespread? 

 

A: Remember that DNA has been around for less than 20 years and has been used in only a sliver of cases.  In addition, the cases of DNA exoneration tend to be post-conviction.  Steve Drizin and Richard Leo wrote a law review article documenting 125 false confessions – these include people exonerated before or during trial.  This, too, figures to be only the tip of the iceberg.  These are only the cases we know about.    

 

Q: Shouldn’t we find it reassuring that, according to the Drizin/Leo study, most false confessions are exposed as false before a person is convicted? 

 

A: Not really.  To be arrested, incarcerated, and tried is a tremendously nerve-wracking and disrupting experience.  Lives are shattered in the process. 

 

Q: Drizin and Leo claim 125 cases of false confessions, but the Innocence Project, which does DNA testing, has only uncovered about 30 cases.  How do we know about the others?

 

A: There are various ways a confession can be proven false.  In a few cases, there was no crime -- where, for example, the person allegedly murdered turns up alive or the “victim” admits that he fabricated the crime.  There are cases where someone else comes forward and confesses and provides details that could have been known only to the actual perpetrator.  There are cases where eventually an air-tight alibi is discovered.  One man in Chicago served 11 years in prison until it was discovered that he was in jail at the time of the crime. 

 

Q: But as that case suggests, aren’t a lot of the people who confess falsely actually guilty of some crime – if not the one they confessed to, then another?  These are not model citizens we’re talking about.

 

A: Even if that were true (and often it isn’t), it’s not very reassuring.  Among other things, when a person is wrongly convicted of a crime, the police stop investigating and the real culprit remains at large and free to prey on others.

 

Q: How can we stop the tragedy of false confessions?

 

A: The crucial first step is to educate everyone about the problem – people in law enforcement but also the ordinary Americans who serve on juries and elect representatives.  A major part of the problem is that everyone finds it so counterintuitive that innocent people confess.  This has all sorts of ramifications.  Police engage in dubious interrogative practices because they assume that the suspect still won’t confess unless he’s guilty.  Judges and juries are very slow to doubt the truth of a confession.  Even after DNA exoneration, many defendants remain incarcerated or have to face another trial, because prosecutors still refuse to believe that the confession was false. 

 

Q: Are there specific reforms that would help reduce this tragedy?

 

A: Absolutely. Proposed Reforms