The Situation of False Confessions
Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 29, 2009
Ian Herbert, one of the very best translators of mind science research for popular audiences, has written an informative and disconcerting article, “The Psychology and Power of False Confessions” for the latest issue of The Observer.” Here are some excerpts.
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We know that false confessions do happen on a fairly regular basis. Because of advances in DNA evidence, the Innocence Project has been able to exonerate more than 200 people who had been wrongly convicted, 49 of whom had confessed to the crime we now know they didn’t commit. In a survey of 1,000 college students, four percent of those who had been interrogated by police said they gave a false confession.
Why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit? . . . . In the November 2004 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, APS Fellow Saul Kassin looked at the body of research and described how the police are able to interrogate suspects until they confess to a crime they didn’t commit.
Generally, it starts because people give up their Miranda rights. In fact, Richard A. Leo found that a majority of people give up the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. In fact, according to self-report data, innocent suspects gave up their rights more often than guilty suspects (most told Leo either that this was because they felt that they didn’t have anything to hide because they were innocent or that they thought it would make them look guilty).
Once a suspect starts talking, the police can use a variety of techniques to make the accused feel as though they are better off confessing than continuing to deny (these include promises of leniency and threats of harsher interrogation or sentences). If a suspect feels like a conviction is inevitable not matter what he or she says, confessing may seem like a good idea.
But, in some cases, the accused comes to believe that he or she actually did commit the crime. It’s been shown repeatedly that memory is quite malleable and unreliable. Elizabeth Loftus has repeatedly shown that the human brain can create memories out of thin air with some prompting. In a famous series of experiments, Loftus, APS Past President, was able to help people create memories for events that never happened in their lives simply through prompting. She helped them “remember” being lost in a shopping mall when they were children, and the longer the experiment went on, the more details they “remembered.” The longer police interrogate a suspect, emphatic about his guilt and peppering their interrogation with details of the crime, the more likely a suspect is to become convinced himself.
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Despite the evidence that false confessions are a regular occurrence, most jurors struggle with the concept . . . . Confessions are difficult to discount, even if they appear to be coerced. Years ago, Kassin noticed that cases with confessions have an unusually high conviction rate, and since then he has dedicated his life to studying why that happens and what can be done about it.
In a 1997 study, Kassin and colleague Katherine Neumann gave subjects case files with weak circumstantial evidence plus either a confession, an eyewitness account, a character witness, or no other evidence. Across the board, prospective jurors were more likely to vote guilty if a confession was included in the trial, even when they were told that the defendant was incoherent at the time of the confession and immediately recanted what he said.
Kassin and Neumann also did two simultaneous studies to further explore the power of confessions. In one, they had people watch a trial and turn a dial to rate the extent to which evidence convinced them the defendant was guilty or innocent. The other asked potential jurors after the trial which evidence was most powerful. In both the mid-trial and post-trial ratings, jurors saw the confession as the most incriminating. Other studies have shown that conviction rates rise even when jurors see confessions as coerced and even when they say that the confession played no role in their judgment. “I don’t honestly think juries stand a chance in cases involving confessions,” Kassin says. “They’re bound to convict.”
Kassin says he doesn’t blame jurors. He travels around the country lecturing on the psychology of false confessions and he says “the most common reaction I get from a lay audience is, ‘Well, I would never do that. I would never confess to something I didn’t do.’ And people apply that logic in the jury room. It’s just that basic belief that false confessions don’t occur.” What’s more, the evidence juries are given in conjunction with the false confessions is very damning, Kassin says. False confessions of guilt often include vivid details of how a crime was committed — and why. Confessions sometimes even come with an apology to the family. It’s no wonder jurors have trouble discounting them.
What confessions rarely include is an explanation of why the person confessed. In most states, police are not required to videotape the interrogations, just the confessions. So juries don’t get to see any potential police coercion and they don’t get to see the police planting those vivid details in the minds of the suspects.
And that may be just the tip of the iceberg. Kassin believes that confessions can have a dramatic impact on trials even if they never make it into a courtroom. They can influence potential eyewitnesses, for example, and taint other kinds of evidence.
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To read the entire article, including a section discussing Kassin’s fascinating research with psychologist Lisa Hasel testing the effect of confessions on eyewitnesses, click here. To visit Ian Herbert’s superb blog, We’re Only Human, click here.
For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Legal Situation of the Underclass,” “The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” “The Painful Situation of Guilt,” “A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,” “The Justice Department, Milgram, & Torture,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Situation of Punishment,” “Why We Punish,” “The Situation of Death Row,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”