One of the most common questions asked about innocence cases is, “Why would anyone confess to a crime they did not commit”? The fact is that false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Research studies have pinpointed the reasons why false confessions happen and what reforms are needed.
False confession cases always result from the way that an interrogation has taken place. The purpose of an interrogation is for law enforcement to collect information or obtain a confession and admission of guilt. One of the most common interrogation methods used by law enforcement officers is the “Reid Technique.” The Reid Technique trains officers to first ask non-accusatory questions in order to determine whether the subject is lying about their involvement in the crime. If the officer believes that the subject is involved in the crime, then an accusatory interrogation takes place. At this stage, the officer asks questions believing that the subject is guilty and the goal is to have the subject admit guilt.
Noted false confession expert Richard Leo has found fault with the Reid Technique and claims that the methods taught are “psychologically coercive” and contain three major errors: 1) Misclassification error occurs when the officer decides that an innocent person is guilty; 2) Coercion error occurs when, subjected to psychologically coercive factors (e.g., stress, fatigue, lengthy questioning, or mental or physical fatigue) the suspect feels that their only choice is to comply and admit guilt; 3) Contamination error occurs when, after admitting guilt, the police help create a narrative of the crime that includes facts than an innocent person would not know. Other researchers have created experiments where psychologically coercive techniques were used to capture false confessions in an experimental setting.
How can we evaluate whether a wrongfully accused person has confessed? According to false confession expert Saul Kassin, there are certain factors to look for. Age is a factor as juveniles are more vulnerable, especially those under 14 years old. Persons with mental illness or with low IQs are also prone to falsely admit guilt. Also, the longer the interrogation period, the likelihood of a false confession increases. A review of 125 wrongful conviction cases showed that 84% of the false confessions occurred after more than 6 hours of questioning. Kassin also looks at the content of the confession. Are the facts consistent with statements from others? Does the confession contain accurate facts only known to the perpetrator? Are any of the exact details from the confession in error or contradicted?
One of the most well-known false confession cases is the NY Central Park Jogger case. In 1989, a female jogger was found brutally attacked and raped in Central Park. The crime caused an uproar in New York City and police were under pressure to find those responsible. Five black youths, aged 14-16, were seen in the park that night, arrested for the crime, and interrogated. Under intense police questioning, four of the boys admitted to roles in the crime and implicated others. But the youths also gave conflicting accounts of the crime and none of the DNA evidence matched any of them. All of them later said they were coerced into giving false statements. All five youths were exonerated when a serial rapist confessed to the crime and his DNA tied him to the crime scene. In 2012, the case received newfound attention after the release of the documentary “The Central Park 5” by Ken Burns.
There are simple reforms that states should implement to prevent false confessions by innocent persons and wrongful convictions. The first and simplest is to require that interrogations be recorded in totality. The coerciveness of the interrogation cannot be determined unless the entire interview is recorded. Many states (such as Illinois, New York, and Minnesota) have already passed recording laws and such legislation is beginning find increasing support among law enforcement. Another reform is to limit certain interrogation techniques, such as lying to the suspect about having forensic evidence linking them to the crime. Some also suggest limiting the length of interrogations.