A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, supports the link between sleep deprivation and false confessions. Lawrence Sherman, Director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, has called it a “milestone.” New Science magazine reports, “…legal experts are predicting it will be cited in future court cases.”
From the Study: “Here we demonstrate that sleep deprivation increases the likelihood that a person will falsely confess to wrongdoing that never occurred. Furthermore, our data suggest that it may be possible to identify certain individuals who are especially likely to falsely confess while sleep deprived. The present research is a crucial step toward understanding the role of sleep deprivation in the problem of false confession and, in turn, raises complex questions about the use of sleep deprivation in the interrogation of innocent and guilty suspects.”
The study also sheds light on how a false confession can undermine the defense and the confidence of defense witnesses after learning of the confession.
Sleep deprivation has long been a tactic in eliciting confessions in criminal and other interrogations. While many defendants have retracted confessions after a good night’s sleep, these self-incriminating statements have been used as powerful evidence in criminal trials. A false confession has been a contributor to wrongful criminal conviction in nearly 13% of exonerations in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and to more that a quarter of exonerations revealed through DNA, according to the Innocence Project.
The New Science article notes, “In the UK some notorious 1970s miscarriages of justice involving suspected IRA bombers hinged on false confessions made after profound sleep deprivation. It is now illegal for police in the UK to interview people who haven’t had 8 hours’ sleep in the past 24, unless in an emergency. The entire interview process must also be filmed.
But many other countries including the US have no such rules.”
The New Science article showcases the case of Damon Thibodeaux, who spent 15 years in solitary confinement on death row after being wrongly convicted of the Louisiana murder of his cousin, Crystal Champaign. A false confession was instrumental in his conviction. Thibodeaux’s confession came after an all-night interrogation. He had been up the previous night searching for his cousin.
Alexandra Gross, author of this case profile in the National Registry of Exonerations, reported,
“The reinvestigation established firmly that Thibodeaux’s confession was false. He claimed to have raped Champagne when in fact no rape occurred. He said he strangled her with a gray speaker wire he took from his car, when in fact she was strangled with a red cord that had been tied to a tree near the crime scene. The prosecution consulted an expert in false confessions, who concluded, as did the defense, that the confession was the result of police pressure, exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty.
On September 29, 2012, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, Jr., joined the Innocence Project, the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana and the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron in a motion to vacate Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence and dismiss the charges against him, and he was released directly from death row that afternoon.”
The study was published online before print on February 8, 2016. Authors are Steven J. Frenda, Shari R. Berkowitz, Elizabeth F. Loftus, and Kimberly M. Fenn.