Saul Kassin and Gisli Gudjonsson’s article “True Crimes, False Confessions” talks about the culture of false confessions, and why they occur; particular emphasis is placed on why defendants are convicted when there are only false confessions as evidence.
After describing a case wherein a woman was raped in Central Park, and a group black teenagers falsely confessed to it before another man came forward of his own volition, the authors discuss the phenomenon of false confessions. They reveal a horrifying trend of getting false confessions out of people, or accepting those confessions out of hand, or without other evidence. “Opinions differ on prevalence rates, but it is clear that a disturbing number of cases have involved defendants who were convicted based only on false confessions that, at least in retrospect, could not have been true” (p. 27).
The problem, the authors claim, boils down to the methods police interrogators use to question victims. Often, they will pretend to have evidence they do not have, and use other strategies to break down a suspect, making them doubt their own stories. Often, a suspect will lie just to get out of that stressful situation, leading to a false confession. The appeal of going home becomes too much during questioning, and the suspect will say anything just to get them to stop.
The data the article provides is compelling – a study of interrogators reveals that, while training to extract confessions makes the interrogator more confident, they are just as likely as before to get a guilty confession (hovering at around 50%); what’s more, interrogators try the hardest to get a confession out of someone when they presume they are guilty, when the suspect is actually innocent. It is also revealed that innocent people will be less likely to exercise rights of silence, as they believe the truth will set them free; however, this leaves them open for police interrogation techniques that will extract a false confession from them, especially if the questioning goes long enough.
No matter the validity of the confession, studies show that its very presence can sway a jury significantly towards a guilty verdict, and often these jurors presumed that the confessions were voluntary. This makes them more likely to convict an innocent person with a false confession than they would an innocent person without; the pervading wisdom is that, if they confessed, they must be guilty, and that no one would voluntarily give a false confession to sabotage themselves.
In the end, the authors reveal that reforms are needed desperately in order to cut down on false confessions, and the police and victim culture that leads to them. Police tactics, which often involve lying and other forms of persuasion to get a confession out of someone need to be changed. This would help to place trust back in the police officers who interrogate suspects, and allow them to exercise more accurate investigations, cutting down on coercion leading to false confessions. If greater transparency and honesty were used in interrogations, suspects would not be scared into giving false confessions for the sake of leniency, thus dooming them to unjust prison sentences.
I am in particular agreement with the majority of the findings of this article. One particular conclusion that I am in agreement on is a police culture that encourages results and closed cases, often at the expense of justice. Far too often, it seems as though police officers just want investigations to be closed, and their hunches to be right. If the guy they think did it didn’t, they will do whatever they can to get them to say what they want them to say, leading to the culture of false confessions.
One finding I found interesting was the jury culture that places such a big emphasis on confessions. Despite the lack of any substantial evidence, it seems likely that a jury will find someone guilty just because they said they did it. This ignores any and all other reasons a suspect would have for confessing (getting out of a situation, police implications of leniency), and placed the blame squarely on the confessor. “After all,” thinks a jury, “Why would he confess if he were innocent?” It presents an overly optimistic view of the justice system, and one that needs to be corrected.
I was particularly confused on one issue, though, and that was the suspect’s alleged waiving of their Miranda rights. I do agree that it happens, but I am very interested to know what kinds of tactics police officers used to get people to give them up. The speaking of the Miranda rights is a very deeply ingrained aspect of police work, and everyone knows about them – why would a suspect give them up? Thinking about it, though, I suppose it is likely that, in such a stressful situation, they would forget about them or see waiving them as a nice option considering the alternatives interrogators offer.
Kassin, S., & Gudjonsson, G. (2011). True Crimes, False Confessions. Scientific American Mind, 1, 24-31.