Would YOU Confess to a Crime You Didn’t Do?

Q:  I just saw the news about an Illinois case where several men spent nearly 20 years in prison for crimes they confessed to, but didn’t do.  What makes innocent people confess?

A:  The story got national play this past November when three men, imprisoned since they were 14 to 16 years old for the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, were freed after DNA testing showed that the actual perpetrator was a serial rapist who was 33 years old at the time. They had confessed as teenagers to a crime they had nothing to do with, spending most of their lives in prison as a result.

Common sense should tell you that confessing will not help your case. A signed confession is often the single most damaging piece of evidence against the accused.  In fact, without an admission to the crime there sometimes never would have been enough evidence to arrest!  Nevertheless, even after being given Miranda warnings, up to 80% of suspects routinely waive their Constitutional rights to silence and legal counsel and instead confess their crimes. Many of my criminal cases involve confessions to using, possessing, and even selling steroids or growth hormone, although my clients later tell me they should have known better.

Why do the guilty confess?  Standard interrogation tactics once included beatings or even torture, but in modern America the tactics exploit psychological weaknesses.  Many police investigators are trained in the Reid technique, a nine-step approach to interrogation based on the premise that lying is stressful. The technique is designed to ratchet up the anxiety associated with denying guilt while reducing the anxiety associated with confessing. Once the subject is seen as a suspect by the investigator, there is a presumption of guilt throughout the interrogation. Initial contact establishes rapport; then questioning is designed to erode confidence and lead to incriminating statements. Even the interrogation room is designed to maximize a suspect’s discomfort and sense of powerlessness. Deception is an acceptable part of the routine, including the False Evidence Ploy by which interrogators strengthen their accusations by presenting the suspect with irrefutable evidence of guilt (e.g., a fingerprint or DNA sample) – even though that evidence doesn’t exist.  Suspects are made to feel trapped and see no escape other than confessing.

The same tactics that induce the guilty to confess induce the innocent as well. Since 1992 the Innocence Project has used DNA to help exonerate 274 people who were wrongly convicted, sometimes after they had served dozens of years in prison. About 25% of them had confessed or pled guilty to the crime. In some cases, the tactics employed, commonly used in brainwashing techniques, cause the suspects to doubt their own memories and beliefs, internalizing guilt and “remembering” facts of crimes they did not commit. Juveniles and the mentally impaired are more susceptible to suggestion and their confessions are often unreliable.  Confessions obtained after long and grueling interrogations are also suspect, as are those that result from physical threats or force.

Psychologist Saul M. Kassin, an expert in the field, says that innocence is actually your enemy in an interrogation. Your belief that you have nothing to hide and that justice will prevail leads you to waive your rights to silence and counsel.  Since interrogators presume your guilt, vigorous denials provoke even more aggressive confrontation; in turn, you get even more anxious and stressed. You may be told there’s conclusive evidence against you.  You may be told the only unanswered question is why you did it. You may be offered alternative theories of what happened, each of which presumes your guilt. As exhaustion, confusion and self-doubt creep in, confessing may seem like the only way out.

Maybe police need mind games and trickery to get hardened criminals to confess.  But we all lose when an innocent person confesses.  How can we better guard against false confessions?  Videotape every police interrogation from the very beginning of the Miranda warnings to the end.  Recording interrogations has been shown to decrease the number of false confessions and increase the reliability of confessions as evidence.  The policy works in over 500 jurisdictions nationwide, including in Alaska, Minnesota and Illinois. Reasonable law enforcement officials have nothing to fear from the policy. Video cameras are dirt cheap these days. Frankly, it’s a policy whose time is overdue.

© Rick Collins, 2011.  All rights reserved.  For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.  Reprinted with permission from Muscular Development magazine.