Anatomy of a False Confession
Depending on what study is read, the incidence of false confession is less than 35 per year, up to 600 per year. That is a significant variance in range, but no matter how it is evaluated or what numbers are calculated, the fact remains that false confessions are a reality. Why would an innocent person confess to a crime that she did not commit? Are personal factors, such as age, education, and mental state, the primary reason for a suspect to confess? Are law enforcement officers and their interrogation techniques to blame for eliciting false confessions? Regardless of the stimuli that lead to false confessions, society and the justice system need to find a solution to prevent the subsequent aftermath.
In the adversarial justice system, when the offender admits to the criminal act, there is no further controversy and the case promptly proceeds to sentencing. Physical evidence and victim or witness statements may often be overlooked and not considered. The confession is considered unequivocal evidence of guilt and a conviction is ensured. Indeed, the interrogation process' sole purpose is to obtain a confession. Zimbardo (1967) estimated that "of those criminal cases that are solved, more than 80% are solved by a confession." (Conti, 1999) Without the confession, convictions may be reduced significantly. So why does a person falsely confess to a crime if the likelihood of a conviction is eminent? A false confession to any crime is self-destructive and counterintuitive.
The mental state of the suspect can give explanation to a false confession. If a person is inebriated and is questioned before she is sober, that may lead to easier manipulation by the police. A suspect under the influence of alcohol or drugs may not remember all the events leading up to her arrest. This mental state allows police officers to give misleading information, which may imply that the suspect did commit the crime and does not remember the incident. Mental retardation or suspects with low intelligence quotients (IQ) are easily manipulated by police comments and interrogation tactics. Those suspects usually do not understand the law or the consequences of a confession. They may want to please the police officer by being accommodating or agreeable. They may just want to go home to a familiar environment. Suspects with personality or anxiety disorders are more suggestible, as well, and are likely to provide self-incriminating statements.
Age of the suspect is also a significant factor when discussing false confessions. Juveniles rarely understand the law or the justice system. Juveniles are unreliable, and often lie or tell exaggerated stories to fool or impress police officers. Children do not understand the implications of the confession. Sometimes children will confess because they falsely believe that they may be able to go home sooner. Because of the naiveté of juveniles, the skillful interrogator easily manipulates them.
Even without those factors (age, mental illness or retardation, alcohol, and drugs), there are adults who still confess to crimes that they did not commit. According to Steve Schutte, "Interrogations are designed to result in a confession. People are falsely incriminating themselves because the techniques work." (Tan, 2002) In my opinion, if a person is truly innocent, no amount of abuse or manipulation by the investigator should result in a false confession. So, why does it? The answer is police harassment and verbal abuse in many forms. Richard Leo, an associate professor at the University of California-Irvine, stated "police are taught that you don't shine bright lights on people, you don't beat them up, and you do give them food and bathroom breaks." Basically, anything outside of that statement is fair game.
The goal of interrogation is to elicit voluntary and truthful information. However, there are times when the interrogation tactics used by...
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