Why Do Innocent People Confess?

This question has puzzled criminologists, psychologists and criminal lawyers for  centuries. It goes against the grain of all rational permutations, why a person would, on his own ‘volition’ own up to a crime he did not commit. Prof. Mark Godsey succintly restated the befuddling conundrum this way: ‘The idea that a suspect would falsely confess to a crime that he did not commit seems counterintuitive and nonesensical. Psychiatrists and social scientists are examining the reasons why false confessions occur, and we have a long way to go before we will have a complete answer’.

David K. Shipler in his article in the New York Times of February 23, 2012 attempted to grapple with the question. He identified shoddy police investigation; suspects apprehension and fear of the system – ‘They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality, or unable to defer gratification’. In the case of children, he states: ‘Children think they will be jailed if they keep up their denial and will get to go home if they go along with interrogators’. As for adults, he opined that ‘Matured adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated’.

The penultimate and concluding paragraphs offers 2 suggestions which I consider apposite. He says –

1. ‘The police could be prohibited from lying about nonexistent evidence; from inducing a suspect to imagine leniency; from questioning minors without a parent or a lawyer present. They could be required to corroborate a confession with stringent evidence:

2. Finally, post-conviction challenges of confessions could be assigned to judges and prosecutors other than those who tried the original cases. The natural unwillingness to admit a grave error should not have to be overcome for justice to be done’

The full text of the article can be read herehttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/why-do-innocent-people-confess.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&ref=falsearrestsconvictionsandimprisonments

4 responses to “Why Do Innocent People Confess?

  1. arkansastruthseeker

    I know from a personal stand point a person that has never been in any legal trouble at all being pitted against a prosecutor who threatened him with major charges if he did not plea. Then of course there is the after math, for people that know nothing of law, he was told to plea no contest and he would go home, after holding him in county jail for months. They did not explain the plea, she simply stated he just had to plea a no contest.
    To him he though he had won but after it was over he found his life was destroyed because the no contest is the same thing as saying your guilty. But you have to see thousands of people never study law because who but a criminal would? He thought the law was on his side and it was not. The fact is they played him by refusing to get evidence, not supressing they absolutely did not try. They wanted him guilty and they sweat him out till he made that plea. Never ever doubt in this situation he was truly screwed from the day the accusation came out. But you cant fight a city because they can do as they please. Needless to say his life has been destroyed and the state got it wrong simply by not investigating. If it were me I would abolish plea bargaining. It serves no purpose, if it lets criminals go and locks up thousands of innocents.. Too much to ask for reform because in order to get reform you have to have people like the ones who write this blog. People that still have morals and fight the wrongs. Reform will never happen unless there are more people like these authors, getting the truth out there screaming it everyday.

  2. Daniel Ehighalua

    I feel your pain! I think David K. Shipler’s two suggestions, would go a long way to deal with concerns like the ones you have raised.

  3. Yes, puzzling; however, here in the US, police commonly use an interrogation protocol called the “Reid Method”, which is designed to psychologically break down the suspect, and cause him to believe that his only way out is to confess.

  4. Daniel Ehighalua

    Thanks Phil. I should think that kind of treatment should pass for ‘torture’ under Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture; that of course, is subject to whether the US is signatory to the Convention. The definition of torture under that Treaty is broad enough to render the so called ‘Reid Method’ a serious human rights violation.

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