False Confessions

A false confession is a narrative admission to a crime that is made, orally or in writing, by an innocent person. Research shows that innocent people may confess in different ways and for different reasons—resulting in three types of false confessions: voluntary, compliant, and internalized. From an empirical perspective, this entry addresses the evolution of our understanding of false confessions, the frequency of their occurrence, and the methods of interrogation that put innocent people at risk.

False confessions are an important problem in forensic psychology, especially when viewed in the context of their consequences within the criminal justice system. Historically, confession evidence is considered the most incriminating form of evidence that can be presented at trial, a belief that is supported by its effects on jury decision making. Even when disputed, uncorroborated, and contradicted by other evidence, confessions are a driving force for conviction.

Among the many notable examples of this phenomenon was the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case, in which five teenage boys confessed to brutally beating and raping a female jogger in New York’s Central Park. Even though the boys were subjected to lengthy and harsh interrogations, gave confessions that were filled with factual errors, retracted their confessions shortly thereafter, and were excluded as donors of the semen by DNA tests, each was convicted at trial— solely on the basis that they had confessed. It was not until 13 years later that they were exonerated when a serial rapist stepped forward from prison to confess. His confession betrayed firsthand knowledge of the crime and was supported by a match to the original DNA sample.

Questions of Prevalence of False Confessions

The jogger case is notorious but not unique. Beginning with the Salem witch trials of 1692, numerous false confessions surfaced when it was later discovered that the confessed crime had not been committed (e.g., the alleged victim turned up alive) or that it was physically impossible (e.g., the confessor was demonstrably elsewhere) or when the real perpetrator was apprehended (e.g., by ballistics evidence). Indeed, as more and more wrongful convictions are discovered, often as a result of newly available DNA tests on old evidence, it is apparent that 15% to 25% of those wrongfully convicted had confessed. Moreover, many false confessions are discovered before there is a trial, are not reported by the police, are not publicized by the media, or result in plea bargains and are never contested—suggesting that the known cases represent the tip of an iceberg. In short, although it is not possible to know the prevalence rate of false confessions, it is clear that they occur with some regularity, making it important to understand how they come about and how they can be prevented.

Types of False Confessions

Both criminals and innocent suspects may confess, providing true and false confessions, respectively. Based on a taxonomy introduced by Saul Kassin and Lawrence Wrightsman, it is now common to further divide the latter into three types: voluntary, compliant, and internalized.

Voluntary False Confessions

In the absence of pressure from the police, voluntary false confessions occur when people freely admit to crimes for which they were not responsible. Sometimes innocent people have volunteered confessions in this way to protect the actual perpetrator, often a parent or a child. At other times, however, voluntary false confessions have resulted from a pathological desire for attention, especially in high-profile cases reported in the news media; a conscious or unconscious need for self-punishment to alleviate feelings of guilt over other transgressions; or an inability to distinguish fact from fantasy, a common feature of certain psychological disorders. As revealed in actual known cases, the motives underlying voluntary false confessions are as diverse as the people who make them.

A number of high-profile cases illustrate the point. In 1932, the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped, prompting some 200 people to volunteer confessions. In 1947, Elizabeth Short, a young, aspiring actress, later called “Black Dahlia” for her black hair and attire, was brutally murdered in Los Angeles and her nude body cut in half, prompting more than 60 people, mostly men, to confess. In the 1980s, Henry Lee Lucas falsely confessed to hundreds of unsolved murders, mostly in Texas, making him the most prolific serial confessor in history. More recently, John Mark Karr was arrested in Thailand in the summer of 2006, after it appeared that he had voluntarily confessed to the unsolved 1996 murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, a 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant in Boulder, Colorado. Karr was intimately familiar with the facts of the crime. Ultimately, he was not charged, however, after his ex-wife placed him in a different state and after DNA tests from the crime scene implicated another, still unidentified, man.

Compliant False Confessions

In contrast to cases in which innocent people confess without external pressure are the numerous false confessions that are elicited through pressure from family, friends, and most notably, the processes of police interrogation.

In many of these cases, the suspect surrenders to the demand for a confession to escape from the stress and discomfort of the situation, avoid a threat of harm or punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. This type of confession is a mere act of public compliance by a suspect who comes to believe that the short-term benefits of confession relative to denial outweigh the long-term costs. American history contains numerous stories of this type of confession— as in the Salem witch trials of 1692, when some 50 women were tortured and threatened into confessing to witchcraft. This type of false confession is also illustrated in the Central Park jogger case, in which all the boys retracted their confessions immediately on arrest and said that they had confessed because they were scared and had expected to be allowed to go home. In the interrogation room, there are many specific incentives for this type of compliance—such as being allowed to sleep, eat, make a phone call, go home, or feed a drug habit. The desire to terminate the questioning may be particularly pressing for people who are young, desperate, socially dependent, or anxious about additional confinement. As discussed later in this entry, certain commonly used interrogation techniques increase the risk of police-induced compliant false confessions.

Internalized False Confessions

In some cases, innocent but vulnerable people, as a result of exposure to highly suggestive and misleading interrogation tactics, not only comply with the demand for a confession but come to internalize a belief in their guilt. In extreme cases, these beliefs are accompanied by detailed false memories of what they allegedly did, how, and why.

The case of 18-year-old Peter Reilly illustrates this phenomenon. Reilly called the police when he found his mother dead in their home. The police administered a lie-detector test and told Reilly that he had failed it, which was not true but which indicated that he was guilty despite his lack of a conscious recollection. After hours of interrogation, Reilly transformed from certain denial to confusion, self-doubt, a change in belief (“Well, it really looks like I did it”), and eventually a full confession (“I remember slashing once at my mother’s throat with a straight razor I used for model airplanes”). Two years later, independent evidence revealed that Reilly was innocent. The case of 14-year-old Michael Crowe, charged with stabbing his sister, similarly illustrates the process. At first, Michael denied the charge. Soon, however, he conceded, “I’m not sure how I did it. All I know is I did it”—an admission that was followed by lies about the physical evidence. Eventually, the boy concluded that he had a split personality—that “bad Michael” killed his sister, while “good Michael” blocked out the incident. The charge was later dropped when a local vagrant with a history of violence was found with the girl’s blood on his clothing.

Why Innocents Confess?

The reasons why people confess to crimes they did not commit are numerous and multifaceted. Sometimes, an individual may be dispositionally naive, compliant, suggestible, delusional, anxious, or otherwise impaired so that little interrogative pressure is required to produce a false confession. In these cases, clinical testing and assessment may be useful in determining whether an individual suspect is prone or vulnerable to confession. At other times, however, normal adults, not overly naive or impaired, confess to crimes they did not commit as a way of coping with the pressures of police interrogation. Indeed, social psychology research has amply shown that human beings are profoundly influenced by figures of authority and can be induced to behave in ways that are detrimental to themselves and others. In short, both personal and situational risk factors may increase the risk of a false confession.

Dispositional Risk Factors

Over the years, numerous studies by Gisli Gudjonsson and his colleagues have shown that not everyone is equally vulnerable to becoming a false confessor. For example, they note that suspects vary in their predispositions toward compliance (as measured by the Gudjonsson Compliance Scale) and suggestibility (as measured by the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale). People high in compliance desire to please others and avoid confrontation—which increases the tendency to capitulate in a highly adversarial interrogation. Those who are high in suggestibility are often less assertive, have lower self-esteem, and display poorer memories. In studies of crime suspects, those who confessed and later retracted their statements obtained higher suggestibility scores than the general population, whereas resistors, who maintained their innocence throughout the interrogation, obtained lower scores.

Also at risk are innocent juvenile suspects, who are overrepresented in the population of known false confessors. Juveniles are more likely to comply with authority figures and to believe false presentations of evidence. Research shows that they also exhibit less comprehension than adults of their Miranda rights, are less likely to invoke these rights, and are more likely to confess when under pressure to do so.

Mental retardation is also a substantial risk factor, as it is associated with increases in compliance and suggestibility. Research has shown that people with intellectual impairments do not comprehend their Miranda rights and are prone to answer “Yes” to a range of questions, particularly from those in positions of authority, indicating an acquiescence response bias. They are also highly influenced by misinformation, a suggestibility effect that increases the risk of internalized false confessions.

Mental illness can also increase the tendency for false confessions. Distorted perceptions and memories, a breakdown in reality monitoring, anxiety, mood disturbance, and lack of self-control are common symptoms of many categories of mental illness. These symptoms may lead people to offer misleading information, including false confessions, to the police during interviews and interrogations. Moreover, disorders that lead people to be more anxious can increase the likelihood of their making a false confession as a means of escape from interrogation.

Interrogation Risk Factors

Although there are subtle variations among approaches, the typical police interrogation is a multi-step event that involves an interplay of three processes: (1) isolation, (2) confrontation, and (3) minimization.

First, interrogators are trained to remove suspects from their familiar surroundings and question them in the police station, often in a specially constructed interrogation room. To some extent, interrogation time is a risk factor. Although most police interrogations last for less than 2 hours, a study of documented false confession cases in which time was recorded revealed that the mean of interrogation exceeded 16 hours.

Second, interrogators confront suspects with strong assertions of guilt that are designed to communicate that resistance is futile. As part of this process, interrogators are trained to block the suspect from issuing denials, to refute alibis, and even to present supposedly incontrovertible evidence of the suspect’s guilt— even if such evidence does not exist. Historically, the polygraph has played a key role in this false evidence ploy. In numerous false confession cases, compliant and internalized false confessions have been extracted by police examiners who told suspects that they had failed a lie detector test—even when they had not (as in the Peter Reilly and Michael Crowe cases described earlier).

The third step is to minimize the crime by providing suspects, who are feeling trapped by confrontation, with moral justification or face-saving excuses, making confession seem like a cost-effective means of escape. At this stage, interrogators are trained to suggest to suspects that their alleged actions were spontaneous, accidental, provoked, peer pressured, drug induced, or otherwise justifiable by external factors, as a way to encourage confession. Indeed, research shows that minimization tactics lead people to infer that leniency will follow from confession, even in the absence of an explicit promise.

Empirical Research on False Confessions

In recent years, researchers have sought to examine various aspects of false confessions using an array of methods—including aggregated case studies, naturalistic observations of live and videotaped interrogations, self-reports from the police and suspects, and laboratory and field experiments designed for hypothesis-testing purposes.

Saul Kassin and Katherine Kiechel developed the first laboratory paradigm to systematically examine the factors that elicit false confessions. In this experiment, participants working on a computer were accused of hitting the ALT key they had been instructed to avoid. In the original study, participants were rendered more or less vulnerable to manipulation by being paced to work at a fast or slow pace. In a manipulation of the false evidence ploy, some participants, but not others, were then exposed to a confederate who claimed to have seen them hit the forbidden key. Results showed that this false evidence ploy significantly increased the false confession rate, as well as the tendency of participants to internalize the belief in their own guilt—particularly among participants rendered vulnerable to manipulation. Follow-up studies using this computer-crash paradigm have replicated and extended this false evidence effect.

A second laboratory paradigm was developed by Melissa Russano and colleagues to investigate the effects of promises and minimization on both true and false confession rates. In their study, participants were paired with a confederate for a problem-solving study and instructed to work alone on some trials and jointly on others. In a guilty condition, the confederate asked the participant for help on an individual problem, inducing a violation of the experimental rule; in an innocent condition, the confederate did not make this request. Later, all participants were accused of cheating and were interrogated by an experimenter who promised leniency, made minimizing remarks, used both tactics, or used no tactics. The results showed that minimization was as persuasive as an explicit promise, increasing the rate not only of true confessions but of false confessions as well.

In light of the numerous wrongful convictions involving false confessions, as well as recent research, the time is ripe for law enforcement professionals, attorneys, judges, social scientists, and policymakers to evaluate current practices and seek the kinds of reforms that would not only secure confessions from criminals but also protect the innocent in the process.

References:

  1. Drizin, S. A., & Leo, R. A. (2004). The problem of false confessions in the post-DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, 891-1007.
  2. Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook. West Sussex, UK: Wiley. Kassin, S. M. (1997). The psychology of confession evidence. American Psychologist, 52, 221-233.
  3. Kassin, S. M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215-228.
  4. Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. (2004). The psychology of confessions: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 33-67.

See also: