The Danger of False Confessions

The Danger of False Confessions

False confessions have been getting a lot of attention lately, from news outlets, activists, and even Netflix. Hundreds of people have been cleared of crimes they confessed to, often through DNA evidence.

And yet, many people have great difficulty believing that they happen. “Why would anyone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?” is a common and reasonable question. Yet, false admissions do happen, and they are used to convict both those who confessed and alleged accomplices.

Though false confessions have been in the spotlight recently—in part due to the popularity of the Netflix series Making a Murderer—the problem is far from new.

In early March, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a $28 million judgment against a rural Nebraska county in favor of six people convicted of a 1985 murder and exonerated in 2008. Three of the six falsely confessed to playing roles in the crime; all three had histories of psychological problems.

In 2002, five men convicted in the high-profile Central Park jogger case were cleared after years in prison. While these two cases and a handful of others made headlines, many other false confession cases played out quietly. 51 of the first 225 people the Innocence Project cleared through DNA evidence had made false confessions.

How Do False Confessions Happen?

False confessions leading to conviction are generally elicited by law enforcement, through coercion, false promises, trickery, confusion, or even brutality.  

Experts break these elicited false confessions into two categories: compliant and internalized.

Compliance-Based False Confessions

Compliant-type false confessions come about when the suspect attempts to please or placate interrogators by saying what they want to hear. Sometimes, the compliance is intended to put an end to an unpleasant situation, ranging from continued custody to threats or violence.

In other cases, particularly those involving young suspects or those of lower intelligence, the compliance arises out of the suspect’s desire to do what is expected of him and please authority figures.

Internalized False Confessions

It’s hard enough for most people to believe that a suspect would be short-sighted enough to confess to a crime he didn’t commit—especially a serious crime—simply to put an end to a short-term situation like an uncomfortable interrogation. Internalized confessions are even more difficult for most people to comprehend.

This type of false confession arises when interrogators so confuse the suspect that he begins to doubt his own recollections and believe that he is guilty of the crime. Because police in the United States are allowed to lie to suspects during interrogation, this confusion is often triggered or aggravated by false representations such as “we found your fingerprints on the weapon,” or “the polygraph showed that you were lying.”

Who is Vulnerable to False Admissions?

While false confessions occur across demographics and to both misdemeanors and serious felonies, certain populations are especially likely to make false confessions.

For example:

  • Young people, especially teens, give false confessions at a much higher rate than older suspects
  • Those with lower intellect/cognitive difficulties are more likely to falsely confess
  • ADHD seems to play a role in the likelihood of a false confession

The vast majority of teens who confessed to crimes they did not commit had neither a parent nor an attorney with them during questioning.

While these vulnerable populations are at special risk, it’s important to be aware that false confessions happen across all demographics.

Psychology Professor Nancy Franklin, who has extensively studied false confessions, says the average interrogation time for those who have confessed to crimes they didn’t commit is 16 hours.

While most people are confident they would never confess to a crime they hadn’t committed when the question is posed hypothetically, it is difficult to imagine the psychological impact of extended questioning—particularly when interrogators may be intentionally employing fear and manipulation to get the answers they want.

Have an Attorney Present During Questioning

The problem of false confessions runs deep, but there is one simple step to help protect yourself or a loved one who has been identified as a suspect in a crime: exercise your right to have an attorney present during questioning.

The information presented in this post is not legal advice and does not form a lawyer/client relationship. Laws and circumstances can differ and change.
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