Recent data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that 15% of the wrongful convictions in it’s data base involved a false confession. A reasonable person would have to ask, “How can that happen?” And how can that happen particularly for brutal crimes like rape and murder? Well, there are some quirky psychological reasons why some unique individuals might confess to a crime they didn’t commit, but in the more general case, there are reasons why people do this. The first of these would be what I call gaining a confession “the old fashioned way.”
The Old Fashioned Way
In the earlier decades of the 20th century, the standard means for extracting a confession was rubber hose and brass knuckles, euphamistically called “the third degree.” In 1931, the Wickersham Commission found that use of the third degree was widespread in the US. After the Wickersham report, the third degree was technically made illegal, but that doesn’t mean that it went away. Former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge, brought some modern refinement to that technique during the late 70′s and early 80′s by introducing the electric cattle prod. Burge began serving a 4 ½ year sentence in January 2011 for torturing and beating confessions out of suspects (but if you can believe this – they let him keep his police retirement). It would be interesting to see real data on the prevalence of this practice today.
Now, before we explore other reasons for false confessions, it needs to be realized that most people will waive their Miranda rights (You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. …………. ). Why do people do this? Because they want to be polite and helpful. They don’t want to be viewed as obstructive, possibly because they think this might bring suspicion upon them. But once they’ve waived their Miranda rights, everything they say can, and does, get used against them in a court of law. Now, even though Miranda rights have been waived, if at any time during an interrogation, the suspect says, “I want an attorney.”, the interrogation is supposed to stop. I mentioned this once at an Innocence Conference session on false confessions, and the audience laughed at me.
The next reason for false confessions is:
The Police are Allowed to Lie to You
That’s right. The police are absolutely allowed to outright lie to a suspect during interrogation. This can take the form of “fake evidence” placed out for view in the interrogation room – fille folders, fingerprint cards, shell casings. This can be a staged identification made by a police officer posing as a witness. I once heard of a case in which the interrogating officers rigged up a fake polygraph machine, and told the suspect he had failed a lie detector test. When there are two suspects, it is standard procedure to split them up during interrogation, and then tell each that his partner in the other room has ratted on him. However, the most egregious case of this that I know about is that of Marty Tankleff. Marty was 17 years old when his parents were brutally murdered in their Long Island home in 1988. The investigating detective made his own decision that Marty was the murderer, blatantly ignored clear evidence pointing to a different perpetrator, and interrogated Marty for hours. During that interrogation, the detective faked a phone call reporting that Marty’s father had regained consciousness in the ambulance and said that his son had done it. Marty eventually confessed, was convicted, and sentenced to prison for 50-years-to-life. After 19 years in prison, it was determined that the actual murderer was Marty’s father’s business partner, and Marty was exonerated in 2008. You can read more details on Marty’s case here:
This practice of lying to suspects during interrogation has, unfortunately, been upheld by the US Supreme Court.
Another reason people falsely confess is what might be called the “new fashioned” way of gaining a confession.
The Reid Method
The Reid Method is a psychologically structured interview and interrogation technique developed by, and taught by, John E. Reid & Associates (
). It has been widely adopted by police agencies in the US. The method starts with a “behavioral analysis interview” (BAI). During this phase, the interrogator maintains a “friendly” demeanor, but poses structured questions designed to provoke responses that can indicate guilt. If the interrogator decides that the suspect is “guilty”, the method then proceeds to the “interrogation” phase, which is confrontational. There are nine separate steps to the interrogation phase, and they are psychologically designed to get the suspect to the point where he believes his “only way out” is to confess. As part of the interrogation phase, the suspect may be offered a promise of leniency if he confesses. For more details about the Reid Method, here is an informative link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reid_technique
Confessions obtained by the Reid Method fall into two basic categories:
- Compliant Confession - the suspect confesses for a reason. Investigators may have promised the suspect that they will be lenient if he confesses. On the other hand, he may have become so fatigued and upset by the interrogation process that he will do anything to end it.
- Internalized Confession - the suspect begins to believe that he actually committed the crime. This can happen if the person is particularly susceptible to suggestion. It can also happen if the investigator repeats the same scenario so many times that the suspect begins to feel as though he remembers it.
There has been open criticism of the Reid Method, because of it’s ability to produce false confessions, particularly if misused by police agencies. People who are young, developmentally disabled, or mentally ill are particularly subject to falsely confessing as a result of this method. Regardless, it is widely used within law enforcement.
Once a confession has been made, the deed is done. You can’t “un-ring the bell.” The confessor can recant his confession, but courts look upon recanted confessions the same way they look upon recantations by witnesses – not favorably. Confessions have huge weight in the justice system, and some prosecutors will even claim that a confession trumps DNA evidence to the contrary.
Do false confessions happen? They absolutely do.