Posts Tagged ‘coercion’

False Confessions: Why do the Innocent Confess?

Taylor Thornton — March 28, 2018 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

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In the first post in this series, we discussed which particular groups of people were more vulnerable to giving false confessions and should thus receive special protection from such a thing. But, the truth is, giving a false confession is something anyone can fall victim to. To the average person, this concept seems baffling. It is difficult to wrap the mind around why someone would ever claim guilt for a crime they were not guilty of, especially the more heinous crimes like murder and rape. But, the fact is, hundreds of innocent people have confessed to crimes they’ve later been exonerated of. So, why does this happen?

Explaining why a false confession occurs can be categorized into three components. The first is the misclassification error. Misclassification occurs when police and detectives decide that the innocent party is definitely the guilty party that they are searching for. A false confession always starts, of course, with the police landing their targets on an innocent suspect. Police are trained in interrogation tactics that involve observing very specific body language cues almost as though they are human lie detectors. Research has shown that these are not the most accurate or reliable evaluations of whether someone is telling the truth. However, detectives might use these bodily cues to decide among themselves that this suspect is lying and proceed to an interrogation. Other mistakes can influence police to choose their guilty suspect, like that person fitting a given description of the perpetrator or simply being a person who would have motive like a family member. When investigators decide early on who they think is guilty, other errors will follow as they move forward determined to yield a confession.

The second component is the coercion error. When investigators have misclassified the guilty party, they need to yield a confession from them. The confession is incredibly important when an innocent person has been wrongly presumed guilty because there will likely be little or no other evidence to support a case against this party if they are truly innocent. Thus, investigators begin an interrogation often marked by tactics to coerce the suspect into giving the confession. One strategy is extremely long interrogations. A common theme among false confessions is having sat in interrogation rooms for unimaginable amounts of time before finally giving the confession. Suspects are physically and mentally exhausted, this weakens their ability to stand up to the interrogators. Detectives can use this weakness to their advantage in a number of ways. Investigators sometimes make promises that the suspect can go home if they simply confess, which can become shockingly enticing after 16 hours straight in an interrogation room. Often the suspect just wants to go home, so they give in and tell the interrogators whatever it is that they want to hear so that they can leave. Bad interrogators might also use methods of psychological coercion. This can include promises of leniency, threats of harsher treatment, and making the suspect believe that they have no other choice but to confess. They are often convinced that their guilt is so established that no one will ever believe them and, sometimes and most shockingly, innocent people can even be convinced that they are truly guilty of the crime when they are not. As we discussed in the first False Confessions, these tactics can be particularly effective and damaging for certain groups of people.

Finally, there is the contamination error. A very simple admission of guilt is not enough for a convincing confession. A powerful confession provides details, motives, and emotions that will convince a jury that this suspect must be guilty. Once interrogators have successfully yielded a confession of guilt from their suspect, they now need them to provide those convincing details for the confession to be powerful. This is where the contamination error can come in. In a proper interrogation, police might ask vague questions about the circumstances of the crime, without being leading, that result in the truly guilty party providing details that only they could know. This helps the police prove to a jury that a truly guilty party had to have committed this crime if they go back on their confession later on. However, when interrogating an innocent person interrogators may ask specific and guiding questions in order to get the details that they desire. This can be unintentional on the part of the investigator who truly believes that this suspect is guilty and truly wants to see justice by getting a thorough confession. This can also be more malicious on the part of a truly corrupt interrogator that desires to pin a crime on a person that they know is innocent. Interrogators may insert certain information and attempt to shape the suspects responses in order to create the narrative that they need. This can go so far as implying or even overtly providing details that only the perpetrator of the crime could know. They contaminate the confession by implying or even blatantly inserting information to strengthen their perceived narrative of events. This creates an extremely convincing confession.

When such interrogations are recorded in full, social scientists can study the exact steps taken for an innocent person to admit guilt to a crime they did not commit. Attorneys, of course, can also use this at trial to deny the validity of such a confession. But, when police do not record every part of it, and only have taped evidence of the admission of guilt itself, this can be devastating for the innocent party. With no way to provide an explanation to a jury as to why the accused would confess if they were in fact innocent, that false confession can be the most powerful piece of evidence, and sometimes the only real piece of evidence, against them that can take their life away from them. A video taped confession can protect both the accused and the investigators questioning them. It shows the full truth of the circumstances of the confession and protects the integrity of police officers who are performing their job properly by yielding real confessions without coercion.

A false confession, while it may close a case, is not justice. A wrongful conviction always leaves a guilty party on the streets free to offend again and takes away the life of an innocent. It is important to understand why someone might falsely confess in order to make proper and truthful confessions the goal over just any admission of guilt.

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Alejandra de la Fuente — July 14, 2010 @ 9:55 PM — Comments (1)

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” 25 percent of the time, to be precise, in light of the case in point.

While there may be several reasons as to why people give false confessions, Lisa Black and Steve Mills of The Chicago Tribune zero in on the element of desperation in examining the gamut:

Trauma, lack of sleep and highly manipulative interrogation techniques are a few factors that can cause the most level-headed people to falsely confess to a crime — even one as heinous as a child’s murder, according to experts. Researchers believe that false confessions lead to about 25 percent of wrongful convictions, a statistic underscored by the increasingly sophisticated use of DNA evidence.

Take, for example, the case of Kevin Fox.  Having just lost his 3-year-old daughter to a brutal ordeal of sexual assault and murder, he found himself sitting in a “small, windowless room” with the police threatening that they would “arrange for inmates to rape him in jail.”  According to further records, the detectives “screamed at him, showed him a picture of his daughter, bound and gagged with duct tape, and told him that his wife was planning to divorce him.”  This went on for 14 hours.  Fox gave up and went along with the police’s hypothetical insisting that his daughter had died in an accident, thinking that, clearly, they would see that the hypothetical and the actual evidence coming from the incident did not fit together.  Quite the opposite of recognizing the mismatch, the police locked Fox away for 8 months before DNA evidence revealed that he could not have committed the crime.

The interrogation itself is stressful enough to get innocent people to confess,” said Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “But add to that a layer of grief and shock and perhaps even some guilt — ‘I should have been there’ — and then that the parent is trying like hell to be cooperative because they want the murder of their child solved.

The sort of torturous investigation as that endured by Fox is matched in immorality by its deceptive technique.  Dr. Robert Galatzer-Levy, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, notes:

While law enforcement agencies have long relied on the “Reid Technique” method of interrogation to elicit confessions, some critics argue it’s based on faulty assumptions of deceptive behavior. Investigators are taught how to base their questions and method of interrogation on a suspect’s verbal and non-verbal cues and mood, sometimes using a “baiting” approach to elicit confessions.

This method becomes even more alarming when examined in light of its frightening potential:

Even those who believe such techniques are effective in obtaining true confessions say they can be misused by authorities.

There is a lot of coercion that can happen, short of the (former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon) Burge case where they are torturing someone to get confessions,” said Fred Hunter of Hinsdale, a licensed polygraph administrator. Burge, 62, was convicted last month of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about torturing suspects in a civil case.

The lashes of this injustice are not limited to parents, such as Fox, but spread further to hit another group of people:

Those most vulnerable to overzealous police work often are “throwaway people,” said Hunter, referring to suspects who lack education, advocates or resources to represent themselves.

We know that for certain kinds of people, particularly those with mental illness and mental deficiencies, but other people as well, the psychological intensity of an interrogation can prove absolutely as torturous as physical pain,” said Lawrence Marshall, a Stanford University law professor who co-founded Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

What can be said about a system that victimizes some of the most vulnerable members of our society?…And, perhaps, one of the sadder aspects of it all is the system’s reliance on the shortcut that is a confession…at the expense of solid evidence.

I think what we are seeing right now is there has become an overdependence on confessions,” said Marshall, who is appealing the case of Juan Rivera of Waukegan, who in May 2009 was convicted for the third time of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl despite DNA evidence that excluded him. Lake County prosecutors suggested the girl was sexually active to undercut the DNA.

When translated from Latin, the origin of the opening proverb goes, “Desperate diseases must have desperate remedies.”  Coerced false confessions that lead to wrongful convictions, are they not a cancer of our law enforcement and our justice system?  What do you say would be the proper remedy?

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