Exploring The Curious Case Of False Confessions

June 27, 2019

Why would anyone confess to a crime that they didn’t commit?

It’s 1989 in New York.

The entire city is reeling in the aftermath of the brutal rape of a 28 year-old woman who was jogging through Central Park on the night of April 19. The woman was so severely assaulted – stabbed, sodomized, and almost beaten to death – that she lay in a coma for 12 days. When she shattered doctors’ expectations and woke, she had no recollection of the night of the attack, or of who assaulted her.

The crime was one of the most widely publicized of its kind in the 1980s, according to The New York Times, and, naturally, the public was outraged, demanding someone be held accountable and justly punished for attacking the “Central Park Jogger”.

Then, miraculously, the police emerged with five young men they claimed were responsible for the crime.

Infamously known as the “Central Park Five”, four young African-American men and one Hispanic teenager, all between the ages of 14 and 16, were arrested, tried and imprisoned as the perpetrators of the assault. Even though the DNA found on the jogger belonged to only one individual – and that DNA didn’t match any of the youths who’d been arrested – all five men provided confessions to the rape, which ultimately secured their conviction. A conviction that would see them each spend between six and 13 years in prison.

Then all five recanted their confessions, claiming they’d been intimidated, denied food and water for hours, lied to, mistreated and coerced by police into admitting they’d raped and beat the jogger. The confessions themselves were videotaped – but the 20 hours of interrogation beforehand were not. And even though none of the five confessions correlated to the physical evidence at the scene – the DNA evidence didn’t match the teens and all of the confessions were inconsistent and riddled with errors – five kids were locked away.

Years later, a notorious convicted rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and his DNA was a match. He stated that he acted completely alone and provided an account of the attack, which matched the other evidence perfectly. The “Central Park Five” were exonerated of the crime they had confessed to.

So, why did they even confess in the first place?

According to The Innocence Project, one in four people who are convicted, but later exonerated due to DNA evidence, give a false confession or make an incriminating statement during police questioning. As shocking as this statistic is, the number gets even more alarming when you note the fact that DNA is only available in a fraction of all crimes; so it’s likely there is a much larger number of people currently sitting in prison for crimes they didn’t actually commit.

Innocent until proven guilty?

‘Central Park Five’ defendants in the courtroom in the notorious 1989 case that shocked the world.

At some stage or another, everyone has self-sabotaged or become their own worst enemy, perhaps even said we did something we weren’t technically responsible for, just to get someone off our backs. But when the price for getting those people off of our case is loss of freedom, making a false confession seems to be something an innocent person simply wouldn’t do…

But it happens terrifyingly often, to people of all different ages, education levels, and ethnicities.

And if there is a confession, it’s pretty likely there will be a conviction. Because, after all, what’s more convincing than someone who willingly says they did it?

It’s exceptionally hard to convince a jury that someone who has confessed to a crime is innocent. The majority of people assume no-one would say they did something – especially something as heinous as homicide or rape – if they didn’t do it. For the everyday person who’s never been a suspect in a crime or experienced a police interrogation, it’s human nature to be incredibly dubious about why a person who made a video-taped confession if they were truly guilt-free. It’s almost impossible to imagine yourself telling authorities you’d murdered someone if you were actually at home asleep while the murder was taking place. So, when presented with a signed confession of a suspect saying “I did it,” most jurors take it as gospel. Even if none of the other evidence adds up.

In actual fact, just about anyone can be broken down under the set of right circumstances

Being interrogated by police is an incredibly intense process, which is often mentally and physically exhausting. It’s an experience designed to break someone down hour by hour until they’re ready to confess to a crime, and it’s so effective that people who had nothing to do with a particular criminal undertaking often end up succumbing to these tactics. Ultimately, interrogations are just exercises in psychological manipulation.

An exercise in manipulation

The popular TV series Law & Order SVU regularly depicts the sorts of intimidating tactics used by police during interrogations.

In a study from the 1990s designed to test the likelihood of giving a false confession, students at Williams College were told not to press the ALT key on their computers under any circumstances. They were then monitored, during which period, none of them hit the forbidden key. After some time had passed, an alarm went off and the person administering the study accused the students of pressing the ALT key, and used tried-and-tested police interrogation techniques to try and obtain a confession.

The first time the experiment was completed, around a quarter of the students ended up falsely admitting to hitting the key.

The second time, when students were encouraged to point the finger at another student and blame someone else for the mistake, the number of confessions doubled. Even after the study was completed and the test administrator had explained to the students it was a hoax, some of the students still maintained they’d hit the button. Even though none of them did.

And while pressing the wrong key on a computer and committing a homicide are two vastly different scenarios, this study – and numerous ones which have since been undertaken in this fascinating area of human psychology – proved that in the right environment, most people will confess to something they didn’t do, and sometimes can even convince themselves they’ve done it and simply suffered a memory lapse.

Lights, camera, interrogation

Brendan Dassey was convicted of being party to first-degree murder at just 16 years of age after a grueling interrogation without a parent present.

The giving of a confession inevitably boils down to how a suspect is interviewed. Although the justice system stands on the promise of a suspect being innocent until proven guilty, interrogations are a guilt-presumptive process. The tactics used by police during interrogations are implemented with the express purpose of squeezing a confession out of a suspect, and they can be pretty shocking, if not completely questionable.

“The accusations – yelling, moving in closer, invading one’s space; lying about evidence, making it up, pretending to have evidence, telling somebody they failed a polygraph, for example,” are all considered ‘by the books and above board’ in standard interrogation practices, according to false confession expert and law professor, Richard Leo.

In fact, the police can tell you they found your fingerprints on a murder weapon you’ve never seen before. They can ignore your cries of innocence for hours, repeatedly telling you “we know you did it.”; even claim to have already received verification you were at the scene of the crime from another witness. And these tricks aren’t reserved for corrupt cops. They’re part of the training manual.

John E. Reid & Associates, a company which trains police and interrogators on how best to extract confessions, has come up with a series of techniques which are alarmingly effective at producing confessions, regardless of a particular individual’s actual guilt.

One of these tricks used in the US is to give the suspect their Miranda rights – the phrase which begins ‘You have the right to remain silent’, used in every Law & Order episode you’ve ever seen – with casual nonchalance, downplaying their seriousness so that the suspect feels okay to waive their right to counsel, and will talk to police without a lawyer present, heightening their chances of being coerced into a confession.

Another technique – the so-called ‘Reid technique’ – is a three-step process considered to be the gold standard of interrogation methods. First, interrogators confine the suspect to a room outside of their usual comfort zone, such as a small, cold, bare interview room. Then, they tell the suspect that the police know they’re guilty, usually presenting a theory to the suspect of how the crime went down, and telling them the whole time “we know you did this”; ignoring the suspect’s responses. Finally, they offer empathy, and use minimization to make the suspect feel like it’s okay to confess. Statements like “I understand why you did it. Anyone would have reacted the same way in your situation”, and “If you confess, we can get you the help you need; it’s going to be okay”.

This technique is beginning to be questioned by legal professionals and scholars, seen as a psychological extension of physically beating or torturing someone until they spill the beans. The interrogator refuses to listen to or accept a suspect’s denials, which can make them feel hopeless, anxious, and frustrated. The interrogator can lie about what evidence they’ve found, which further compounds the feeling in the suspect that they’re going to go down for the crime. It’s no surprise, then, that short-term thinking completely takes over the suspect’s mind, and when the interrogator tells them that confessing will open up a way out of this seemingly impossible situation, they eventually buckle.

The guilty and the gullible

Netflix docuseries like The Confession Tapes have highlighted the prevalence of false conventions and questionable convictions in the legal justice system.

The Reid Technique also makes it easy for police to feed confidential details about the case to a suspect, typically during the second stage of the interrogation process, which is why some people who give false confessions often do so whilst providing intimate facts about the crime.

And if police play these psychological mental mind games with a person who isn’t aware of what is happening to them, and has limited cognitive ability to challenge it, things get even more disturbing.

Numerous studies have shown an overwhelming number of individuals who make false confessions are children or suffer from a mentally illness or impairment. This is because children and teenagers are typically easier to manipulate, and not often aware of the ins and outs of the criminal justice system, and consequently less likely to understand the scope of their situation. Those who have mental disabilities can be tempted to agree to please authority figures, and so may confess because they believe it’s what the police want them to do, falling victim to coercion.

You only have to look at the infamous cases of the West Memphis Three, or of Brendan Dassey from Netflix’s hugely popular Making a Murderer docuseries. Both teenagers who gave confessions and were mentally impaired, interrogated for hours without a parent or guardian present, and fed inside information about the crime. Shockingly, in these cases, police also implied that once the boys confessed to their crimes, they’d “get to go home”.

But it’s also average, mentally sound adults who can fall victim to making a false confession, especially if subjected to a lengthy interrogation, mental and physical exhaustion, the belief they’ll be released if they confess, or being manipulated through certain tricks used by law enforcement. People tend to have trust in the criminal justice system, so whether they’re coerced or manipulated into making a confession, they’ll hold onto the belief that everything will turn out justly. That police will do their jobs and uncover the real assailant, or that because they didn’t do the crime, they won’t end up doing the time.

The public’s fascination with true crime is almost insatiable right now. Netflix’s Making a Murderer, The Confession Tapes and Long Shot, and crime podcasts like Serial have achieved record audience numbers thanks to their addictive combination of real crime and gross injustice. We get angry at the idea of people being punished when they are undeserving of it, and so we should. These elements of pop culture are, at least, making the phenomenon of false confessions more well-known and as such, bringing many of the law enforcement’s interrogation methods into question.

But the harsh reality is, this is a growing issue in the criminal justice system, and not every case of false confessions gets notoriety thanks to a television show. A lot of those who have admitted to crimes they didn’t commit due to questionable police tactics remain voiceless; sitting in cells watching the years tick by; paying the ultimate price for their trust in the system to steer them toward justice.

Images via shutterstock.com and tumblr.com.

Comment: Are you fascinated by the phenomenon of false confessions? 

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