False Confessions – How Can That Happen??

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 Technique

The Reid Method is a psychologically structured interview and interrogation technique developed by, and taught by, John E. Reid & Associates (http://www.reid.com/).  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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Technique, 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.

25 responses to “False Confessions – How Can That Happen??

  1. Pingback: False Confessions and the Reid Method – Response from John E. Reid & Associates | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  2. Pingback: Exonerations in the News: Brian Banks Didn’t Do It; The Dingo Did | On SBS

  3. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s June 24th Sunday night newscast, “The National”,” had a lengthy story on false confessions, the Reid method, and the substitute “P.E.A.C.E.” model, imported from Britain, now being used in Newfoundland, instead of the Reid method. Links to the piece and other materials can be found on the newscast’s website.

    • Greg,

      This video is compelling. I am going to assume your permission, and post a link on the blog.

      Thanks Very Much,
      Phil Locke

  4. Pingback: Yet More on False Confessions and the Reid Technique | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  5. Pingback: Understanding the Unthinkable: False Confession | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  6. Pingback: Why I Think the US Justice System is Broken – and Why It’s Not Getting Fixed | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  7. Pingback: A New Twist to False Confessions – The Pharmacological Factor | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  8. Pingback: False-Coerced confessions while medicated | Court-Martial Trial Practice

  9. Pingback: “Scenes of a Crime” – Documentary of a False Confession | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  10. “Internalized Confession: 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.”

    – Is this technique also used by law enforcement to coerce false statements from witnesses, or even from a false victim. Law enforcement can actually say things repeatedly what they want the false victim or false witness to say. And when they repeat it over and over it becomes implanted in their brain. In other words, the law enforcement officer is telling the false victim or false witness what to say by their tricky tactics.

  11. The conditions imposed on you before trial are so severe, you are willing to do anything just to resolve this as quickly as you can. So months later when you finally get to a court to make a plea you falsely confess to a crime you did not do. You dont want to wait several more months to face a court trial, you just want to get back to work and back home. If you want to keep your family you surely dont want to drag them into court and have them perjure themselves, nor create further hostiliities which will most surely end your marriage. Then you are faced with more court in divorce not to mention the further Lies they will tell.

    Each persons situation will be different as to the hardships they will endure. But, when you look at your options: continue with the imposed restrictions, plead Alford or Guilty to a crime you did not do, take the punishment, return home and get back to work and try to improve your relationship. Or plead not guilty, wait several months for a trial, go through court battle which the female biased court system will find you guilty anyway despite your Innocence, lose your family and all your home and assets from a divorce, lose your job, continue being homeless and jobless, and still wind up with a criminal record and the court mandated punishments which costs thousands of dollars, and forced counsellings, and probation visits, etc…

    To some, the hardships put on them prior to any court trial decision is so severe that pleading guilty to a crime they did not do is their only option. The lack of faith and trust in the corrupt and biased court system further help the person in deciding to falsely confess.

    The punishments put on people even before any trial is more severe than the actual punishment given by a conviction.
    Are we in Communist Russia?

  12. Pingback: Constructing Rich FALSE Memories of Committing Crime | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  13. Pingback: The Innocent Citizen’s Justice System Survival Guide | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  14. My son said innocent,then PD wouldn’t let us in room day of plea,the two PD cowarsed to guilty,they. They told our 22 yr.old son,if he says innocent he’d have 100 percent jail time.This story is in anoka county,Minnesota our son never had a record now misdemeanor,he was truthfully texting his friend in car.How can this county get away with this.Its unjust,and that totally wrong. Can anyone help us.

  15. He’s now in sex offender treatment for two years with felons,rapists sick sexual things.just because a 45 yr old lady made a story he was doing something else .he has ptss from these real criminals,he’s sick over this it’s been 2 yrs.and no end. To this.please can someone tell us what to do.our son was just starting his law enforcement classes,now because of this,what a bunch ,he’s wants nothing to do with the legal system,it so unjust,and unconstitutional..Some one needs to stop this now.

  16. Pingback: A Record Number of Prisoners Were Exonerated Last Year | The Daily Sheeple

  17. Pingback: A Record Number of Prisoners Were Exonerated Last Year » Survival Gear & Food Storage

  18. Pingback: A Record Number of Prisoners Were Exonerated Last Year | Alternative News Network

  19. Pingback: A Record Number of Prisoners Were Exonerated Last Year | HumansinShadow.wordpress.com

  20. Pingback: False confessions, coercive interrogations, hardly a new problem - Jay Wright Attorney

  21. Pingback: Not All Teens Who Confess Are Guilty | Wrongful Convictions Blog

  22. To promote the good character of the wrongfully convicted, I interviewed Keir Stahlsmith, who said, “you won’t even believe the story I have. It’s so bizarre, that it strikes me as the truth being stranger than fiction.” His case is one that sheds light on how a criminal thinks, and how the innocent can be, and sometimes are even framed for a crime.

    A great example of this, is how a USAF Honorably discharged combat veteran of war, with an excellent academic record, a 4.0 aerospace student who never even had as much as a detention in his life, and ended up taking a plea deal after unscrupulous interrogation techniques, and inability to obtain legal resources from inside prison walls. As he waited for answers, the system left him with not even a toothbrush or toilet paper at one point, accusing him of “trying to kill himself” as Corrections Officer Barret said, for using toilet paper to make an eyemask to help him sleep, in a cell where the light was on 24/7. His fear of “returning to such a dehumanizing environment is worse than death” was what kept him from focusing on more important things, such as obtaining legal counsel. They had taken away his toilet paper, and he said, “this was all due to my previous cellmate who had exposed himself to a child,” was written up for slamming the door and shouting repeatedly, while Stahlsmith was also punished as a result of this bad company.

    Keir Stahlsmith said, “I had to survive in harsh conditions that are more suitable for those already found guilty.” He laughed it off, and maintained his innocence, as the system continued to let him down—from misleading him, to signing away his right to a preliminary hearing, to being denied access to resources to build a proper defense—not even having access to a working phone. He caved in saying, “I just wanted to do anything to avoid that place of unethical mistreatment of human beings. It’s beyond words how bad it really is inside those walls. I understand that is where criminals go, but I’m not a criminal and never was and never will be. I just want to be a voice for all those who are ever forced to take a plea, because they think it’s better than the pressures of the alternative.”

    Here is an example of just how corrupt the criminal justice system can be. In order for Keir Stahlsmith, resident of Erie, PA, to avoid a more severe penalty—a law-abiding and intelligent citizen with a spotless record—he was wrongfully convicted, reporting he had “no choice” but to give a false confession. This is a combination of both coercion and intimidation, just to avoid jail time. The techniques used by law enforcement and prosecutors, barely even allowed time for him to build any kind of defense, and he said “I was left sitting there with a 30 second interview before the sentencing hearing and that was it.” Keir Stahlsmith asked his public defender, “can I plead no contest?”

    And as the judge entered, he replied whispering, “then this deal won’t work.” And he reported that was the only chance he had to go over anything with the hastily appointed defense. Keir never had an opportunity to even obtain a paid attorney, or have answered phone calls from his defense, nor a chance to go over the discovery of evidence, and he wasn’t sure what to do, so he just “took the deal” in fear of suffering more punitive damages. He went from prison, to rehab, to a flop house (a very poorly managed recovery house) all just to avoid more time in prison. “This…” he shook his head, stating, “seemed like the most intelligent thing to do, to just go along with it, and be cooperative. I regret it now. Being cooperative doesn’t help an innocent person at all, and it’s the innocent who want to cooperate!” Keir stated, “See, this is exactly what I thought I went overseas to fight for and protect, and here I am being stripped of all my rights as a human being, in the most undignified manner, and not even a clue of what else to do.”

    When I asked about the details surrounding his case, he sounded vexed saying, “it was just too complicated, and I’ve made mistakes as well. So I figured I would just accept the prosecutor’s side as long as it kept me out of that hellhole. I was at a loss, and was so shell-shocked from what I had just been through. I felt nothing better could come of it, and the lie would win out in the end. So why bother fighting against such a beast?”

    Keir Stahlsmith, who was accused of burning a vending machine inside his old high school, said, “Never in a million years would I do something that stupid and pointless. Besides, I loved that school! Truth is, I simply didn’t have a good alibi that anyone could verify, and my situation got complicated because I was pressured into confessing to something I knew was a set up from the start. Someone had threatened to blackmail me, and was out to get revenge. They somehow did a great job of setting me up. I’m just glad it wasn’t worse, since they broke in to my house while I was locked up, and they very well could have killed me.”

    When I investigated further, he gave his account, saying, “Look, I had enemies. I was at an all time low in my life with an unwanted dirty divorce, and I made some poor friends. I was dealing with some really violent and shady characters at that time, and a few of them said they were going to ‘completely ruin me’ and they almost did.”

    Weeks prior to the event, he reported vandalism to his home, reported to the police several attempted break-ins, then while locked up, someone successfully did break in and stole and damaged his property. “Now, that’s the one who had it out for me. All because he thought my ex-fiancée had drugs stashed somewhere. This guy even tried to set me up for check fraud, after obtaining banking documents from my glove compartment.”

    I understood, Stahlsmith couldn’t believe he was set up, and didn’t have anything to do with this, and he figured it was easier to “take the deal” not knowing what else to do.

    “I just caved in and took the blame. I couldn’t even describe how this could happen. I just counted my loss and said I would rather live than let this escalate. It was either take the deal, or basically suicide. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to prove anything wild to the contrary, because it seemed too far fetched, and I didn’t have time to even put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I figured it sounded more ridiculous to tell the whole truth and when under pressure, I just caved in and took the deal. It was easier for me to just take the bullet, because this guy I suspected was a criminal with a warrant already out for his arrest, for burglary, a heroin addict, and a thief, and why I was even associated with him, was beyond me. I knew that. I knew he was bad news. But my ex-fiancée had problems, too, and I think he believed he would find drugs in my house. One time while partying, this guy demanded someone give him drugs, or else, and he threw a fit. I told him to leave, before things escalated, and the next thing I know, my fiancée turns out to be cheating on me, doing heroin, and my house is broken in to, and I’m taken to jail!”

    The truth is sometimes more complicated than the court system is even willing to investigate. “The guy who did that, is criminally insane. Now I’m paying the price.”

    He maintained his innocence and said, “I was totally framed by someone who had it out for me. And he broke in to my house while I was already a victim of his handiwork. He’ll end up in prison eventually, that I’m sure. But I never had a voice. Never had a chance to even tell my side of the story. And that is what I am bothered by most in the justice system. I’m just going to do what is required of me and move on.”

    I asked him, would he let me publish his story, and he said, “I don’t see how that will make a difference, but sure.” There are two sides to every story, and this one I felt should have a voice. He thanked me after the interview, was very polite and kind, and well-mannered.

    Wrongful conviction happens a lot more than people know, because it’s how the justice system is designed, and making it easier for someone like Keir Stahlsmith, to “just take the plea” to avoid possible worse sentencing, and an uphill battle that costs a lot of time and even more money.

    • Interesting read. Most often these are empty claims filled with fallacies, stories with more holes in them than Swiss cheese. In his interview with you David and in dealing with the court system, Mr. Stahlsmith never revealed any facts to justify his claim of innocence. He only told you a story that he believed he was framed. With the natural human nature of people protecting themselves, this leads one to believe that hiding the truth carried fewer legal ramifications and less risk over the potential punishment for what he was being accused of, or he is attempting to exonerate himself from the crimes he actually committed and plead guilty to after the fact.

  23. Keir Stahlsmith is an honorably discharged combat veteran of the United States Air Force, who honorably served while performing combat plans and combat operations. He only ever acted out of honor and agape, self-sacrifice, taking on blame for others, the penalty of one he loved, to cover up for her. Although she betrayed him in the end, this Christlike love is something more men need to act on with all integrity, despite the difficulty it produces. Jesus Christ was also falsely accused and arrested, by the same measure. We ought to all walk honorably and peaceably, and present ourselves also as living sacrifices.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s