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.