Wrongful Convictions

C. False Confessions

Most people cannot understand why innocent persons confess, especially as the “third degree” (beating and torture to get confessions) has mostly disappeared from American law enforcement. Yet, false confessions were obtained in about 20% of exonerations, and at least 125 false confessions have been documented. What people do not know is that police interrogation is a “guilt presumptive” process designed to extract a confession from the guilty person who is reluctant to confess. As such, it uses powerful psychological techniques to get suspects, even innocent suspects, to talk and to confess.

When police interrogate a suspect, they are usually not trying to solve a crime because they are already convinced that the suspect is guilty, even if the investigation has not been completed. Police conduct pre-interrogation interviews to ascertain whether a suspect is truthful, but the ability of police to detect lies is no better than chance. Despite Miranda warnings, most suspects waive their rights. Laboratory experiments and case studies have shown that innocent persons waive more frequently because they know they have nothing to hide.

The interrogation setting and process create psychological pressure designed to extract a confession. The suspect is isolated and confined in a small, uncomfortable space. The interrogator forcefully asserts the suspect’s guilt and cuts off any denials or objections. In the United States police may lawfully lie to a suspect during interrogation, by, for example, falsely asserting that his or her fingerprint or DNA profile was found at the scene. The interrogation creates a sense of hopelessness in the suspect. The interrogator then develops themes, such as minimizing the seriousness of the crime, that make it psychologically easier for the suspect to admit guilt. Once an admission is made, the process moves on to generating detailed oral and written admissions or confessions.

Police interrogation produces incriminating statements or full confessions two thirds of the time. The techniques and subterfuges are so powerful that interrogation also induces innocent persons to confess. Research suggests that teens, mentally impaired individuals, and people with personality deficits are more likely to falsely confess than normal adults. Compliant false confessions are made in order to end the psychological pressure of interrogation. Some who confess naively believe that they will be released, led to that belief by subtle police statements that do not amount to the clear promises banned by the rule against coerced confessions. Others think that once they get out of the interrogation room they will be able to explain their case to a judge and have their case dismissed. Less frequently, cases of internalized false confessions occur, where the innocent suspect comes to doubt himself, after extensive and insistent police persuasion that includes false statements presented as fact, and admits that he “must have” committed the crime while in a blackout state. Even when such confessions are retracted, they play a strong role in convicting innocent suspects.

D. Perjury: Perpetrators, Informants, Jailhouse Snitches, and Criminal Justice Personnel

Perjury in various forms is common in wrongful convictions. Informant perjury was a factor in 49% of the first 111 death penalty exonerations. In capital cases the real perpetrator is often a suspect, and in several cases where police focused on an innocent person, the actual killers led investigators further astray with false testimony. Witnesses frequently lie to police for a number of reasons, and although police tend to believe that they are proficient at detecting witnesses’ deception, scientific studies show that investigators do no better than chance at detecting liars. In laboratory studies, all groups (whether police or students) could identify falsehoods about half the time.

Miscarriages of justice happen often when police pay informants to supply incriminating information about suspects, which the informants then fabricate. Informants are often criminals and can be paid in many ways: money, dropped criminal charges, leniency when they are charged with serious crimes, or favors to friends or family. This gives the most untrustworthy people incentives to lie, and police handlers often fail to properly screen their stories. A pernicious type of informant is the jailhouse snitch. Numerous false convictions are obtained in part on the testimony of jailed snitches who claim that the innocent suspect confessed the crime to them or made incriminating statements. It is not all that difficult for a clever snitch to get enough information about a case to make up a plausible story for the prosecution to use. In some jails the use of snitches has become so routine as to suggest willful blindness on the part of police and prosecutors.

Unfortunately, there are several recent notorious cases in which rogue police officers have framed innocent people for drug and weapons possession. Although this kind of corruption is rare, when it happens it requires officials to reinvestigate hundreds of convictions. Police and prosecutors have great discretion in conducting investigations and trying cases. Although the overwhelming majority are honest, their opportunity to cover the truth requires internal vigilance on the part of these agencies.

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