Every year, innocent people sit in prison cells, some of them even on death row. A surprising number are there because they confessed to crimes they did not commit. False confessions seem to go against common sense, and yet they happen regularly. In cases where a conviction was later overturned due to DNA evidence, 39 percent included a false confession, one study found.
In one of the most high profile false confession cases in recent memory, five young men were convicted of gang raping a 28-year old jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The alleged teenage perpetrators, who came to be called the Central Park Five, initially denied involvement but four of them confessed after hours of grueling interrogation. All four recanted their statements within weeks, but it was too late: even though none of their DNA matched that found at the scene, they were prosecuted and found guilty. It wasn’t until 2002, when a convicted rapist and murderer — whose DNA did match — confessed to acting alone in the attack, that the five men were exonerated. They had served between six and 13 years in prison.
Confessions are more powerful than any other form of evidence in a courtroom, according to psychologist Saul Kassin, who recently wrote a review of research on false confessions for Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. That makes them highly sought after by police interrogators, and it also makes them difficult to undo, even when they are untrue. People tend to be poor judges of a confession’s accuracy, even trained police officers, and even those who know that a confession may have been coerced.
Why would anyone confess to a crime he or she did not commit? Reasons vary according to the type of false confession. In a voluntary false confession, a suspect admits guilt without any pressure from police, for example to gain fame or notoriety. In a coerced-compliant confession, as in the Central Park jogger case, a suspect confesses after initial denials in order to end an exhausting interrogation or in the hope of lenient treatment. In a coerced-internalized confession, a suspect becomes disoriented and believes that he or she actually committed the crime.
Interrogation techniques can make the second two types more likely. With minimization tactics, an interrogator acts as if the alleged criminal behavior was justified or gives the impression that a suspect will be treated more leniently if he or she confesses. Maximization, on the other hand, occurs when interrogators insist on the suspect’s guilt and make him or her feel that denying the crime is hopeless. One maximization tactic is fabricating evidence. Although confessions elicited by physical coercion have been ruled inadmissible in American courts, interrogators can psychologically coerce suspects by falsely telling them that their fingerprints, DNA, or other evidence were found at a crime scene. This was the case in the Central Park jogger interrogation, when investigators told one of the suspects that his fingerprints had been found on the victim’s clothing. It might seem surprising, but Kassin cites a study finding that false evidence “nearly doubled the number” of participants who signed a confession for an act they did not commit in a laboratory.
Capitol Hill briefing
Saul Kassin will address “Why Innocent People Confess and Why Confessions Trump Innocence” on April 29 in a briefing sponsored by the American Psychological Association. The Wednesday eveny will run from 3-4 p.m. at 562 Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The event will be moderated by Dr. Heather O’Beirne Kelly of the APA. Send ositive RSVPs only to Will Starck at email@example.com or (202) 336-6182
Some alleged victims are more vulnerable to false confessions than others, especially juveniles. The young men convicted in the Central Park jogger case were between 14 and 16, and research suggests that their ages may have been a factor. A study of 125 cases of false confessions that were later exonerated by DNA evidence found that 32 percent of the alleged perpetrators were juveniles. Kassin speculates that young people are more apt to make false confessions in part because their neurological development is not yet complete. The parts of their brains associated with planning, rationalization, and delaying gratification are not fully developed, making them more impulsive and swayed by short term benefits such as getting out of an uncomfortable interrogation. Other vulnerability factors are intellectual disability and certain psychological conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Steps clearly need to be taken to reduce the likelihood of false confessions. Kassin believes that the most important reform is to “lift the veil of secrecy” in interrogations by videotaping them, not just during the confession but in their entirety. Videotapes of the entire interaction can make police interrogators more accountable and they can also be shown to juries as evidence of coercion, Kassin says. Seventeen states now require such videotaping and the FBI will soon be required to do the same, he reports. But videotaping may not be enough, because confessions are highly persuasive even when jurors know those confessions may have been coerced. Kassin also recommends ensuring that key players in the justice system, like eye witnesses and crime lab experts, are “blind” to whether there has been a confession, because research shows that information tends to sway their judgments and testimony.
It is impossible to know whether these reforms would have made a difference in the Central Park jogger case. It is also impossible to know how many innocent people have had their lives turned upside down by false confessions. The Innocence Project, a national litigation and policy organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, has used DNA evidence to exonerate over 300 innocent people, many of whom made false confessions. But Kassin’s review makes a compelling case that it is possible to prevent those convictions in the first place, and certainly preferable for suspects, victims, and the justice system.