The Science Behind False Confessions and the Cases Involved with Them

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 21, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

The concept of false confessions is a difficult one to grasp. It seems almost impossible to believe that someone would confess to a crime they did not commit. However, according to science and research, it is actually very possible and once explained, easy to understand why someone may give a false confession.

According to a study performed in 2013, innocent people experience initial physiological differences than guilty people when it comes to being accused of a crime. People who are innocent experience less stress when being questioned because they know they are innocent. This lack of stress can make them feel as though they are not at risk, and therefore do not need to protect themselves. For example, they may not invoke their rights, such as their rights to silence and counsel. In addition, research shows people can even create false memories and visualize themselves engaging in criminal activity.

In another study published in 2015, forensic psychologists interrogated college-aged students. After spending three hours misinforming and encouraging the participants that they had committed a crime, researchers were able to convince 70 percent of them that they had actually done it. Not only did participants confess to the crimes, they also recalled details about what they did. Another forensic psychologist compared false memories to a Wikipedia page, susceptible to editing by other people. She explained that once people are convinced something is true, their imagination takes over and they start to visualize a situation using their own or others’ past experiences, perhaps even drawing from movies. One can no longer distinguish between what is true or false once memories have been put together and internalized.

These findings are supported by statistics. In a report published by the National Registry of Exonerations, the leading cause of false homicide convictions of individuals then exonerated in 2013 were perjury or false accusations, the majority of which were deliberate. Official misconduct was also named as an issue. The report also shows that 74 percent of all homicide cases in the Registry’s database were related to false confessions.

Statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations also show that youth are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit. For crimes allegedly committed by people under 18 years of age, 38 percent of exonerations in the last few decades dealt with false confessions. This correlates with the 2015 study performed on college-aged students.

Last year was no different—false confessions continued to be an issue. In fact, false confessions were involved in almost a fifth of all exonerations in 2015. Steve Drizin, a clinical law professor at the Northwestern University School of Law, wrote an article for the Huffington Post in December, detailing some of the biggest false confession cases for each month in 2015. Perhaps the most astounding of these cases are those of Sharrif Wilson and Daniel Gristwood, Melissa Calusinski, Davontae Sanford, and Corey Williams

Sharrif Wilson and Daniel Gristwood died in January of 2015. Both men falsely confessed to crimes and were exonerated in New York. Wilson was 38 years old and spent 21 years in prison. When he was arrested at the age of 15 he was a healthy young boy, but when he left prison he was obese and suffered from acute respiratory distress syndrome. Wilson had only been out of prison for less than a year. Gristwood was 48 years old and spent 9 years in prison. Only four months after receiving compensation for his wrongful conviction, he died of lung cancer.

In February, Blaming Melissa aired on CBS’s 48 Hours. The episode questions whether Melissa Calusinski, a former daycare worker in Lake County, Illinois, falsely confessed to the murder of one of the children in her care. Kathleen Zellner, who recently agreed to represent Steven Avery from Making a Murderer, is Calusinski’s attorney. The case gained popularity when newly discovered x-rays showing that the child had a pre-existing head injury surfaced, leading the county’s coroner to change the cause of death from homicide to undetermined. However, Calusinski still remains behind bars.

In April, a petition for a new trial was filed in the case of Davontae Sanford. His attorneys from Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School—which also helped create the National Registry of Exonerations—and Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, filed the petition based on actual innocence. Sanford confessed and pled guilty in 2007 to a quadruple murder at a Detroit drug house. He was only 14 at the time. Vincent Smothers, a known hit man who confessed and pled guilty to at least eight murders, also confessed to the quadruple drug house murder. Despite Smothers’ confession, Sanford remains in prison.

In December, lawyers representing Corey Williams discovered exculpatory evidence that was not disclosed to the defense. Williams was convicted for the 1998 murder of a Shreveport, Louisiana pizza deliveryman. Not only was he 16 at the time, but he is also intellectually disabled. Information included in police reports suggested that three other boys who were present during the crime were thought to have tried to pin it on Williams. However, Williams confessed to the murder and was placed on death row. He was later given life without parole because of his status as a juvenile, but he still remains in Angola, a notorious maximum-security prison.

Hopefully 2016 will prove to be a better year, with fewer miscarriages of justice and more exonerations of innocent people who were wrongfully imprisoned.

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