False Confession

Topics: Interrogation, False confession, Confession Pages: 12 (3687 words) Published: March 15, 2013

False Confessions
Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform
Saul M. Kassin John Jay College of Criminal Justice


the commonsense belief that people do not confess to crimes they did not commit, 20 to 25% of all DNA exonerations involve innocent prisoners who confessed. After distinguishing between voluntary, compliant, and internalized false confessions, this article suggests that a sequence of three processes is responsible for false confessions and their adverse consequences. First, police sometimes target innocent people for interrogation because of erroneous judgments of truth and deception. Second, innocent people sometimes confess as a function of certain interrogation tactics, dispositional suspect vulnerabilities, and the phenomenology of innocence. Third, jurors fail to discount even those confessions they see as coerced. At present, researchers are seeking ways to improve the accuracy of confession evidence and its evaluation in the courtroom. interrogation; confessions; evidence


In criminal law, confession evidence is highly persuasive—yet fallible. Despite the pervasive myth that people do not confess to crimes they did not commit, the pages of American history, beginning with the Salem witch trials of 1692, bear witness to all the men and women who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, often because of false confessions. Although the prevalence rate is unknown, recent analyses reveal that 20 to 25% of prisoners exonerated by DNA had confessed to police, that the percentage is far higher in capital murder cases (White, 2003), and that these discovered instances represent the tip of an iceberg (Drizin & Leo, 2004). After reviewing a number of cases throughout history, and drawing on theories of social influence, Wrightsman and I proposed a taxonomy that distinguished three types of false confessions: voluntary, compliant, and internalized. Still used today, this classification scheme has provided an important

Address correspondence to Saul Kassin, Department of Psychology, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 445 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019, USA; e-mail: skassin@jjay.cuny.edu.

framework and has since been used, critiqued, extended, and refined in subtle ways (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). Voluntary false confessions are those in which people claim responsibility for crimes they did not commit without prompting from police. Often this occurs in high-profile cases. When Black Dahlia actress Elizabeth Short was murdered in 1947, more than 50 people confessed. In 2006, John Mark Karr confessed to the unsolved murder of young JonBenet Ramsey. There are several reasons why innocent people volunteer confessions, such as a pathological need for attention or self-punishment, feelings of guilt or delusions, the perception of tangible gain, or the desire to protect someone else. In contrast, people are sometimes induced to confess through the processes of police interrogation. In compliant false confessions, the suspect acquiesces in order to escape from a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. Like the social influence observed in Milgram’s classic obedience studies, this confession is an act of public compliance by a suspect who perceives that the short-term benefits of confession outweigh the long-term costs. This phenomenon was dramatically illustrated in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five New York City teenagers confessed after lengthy interrogations, each claiming he expected to go home afterward. All the boys were convicted and sent to prison, only to be exonerated in 2002 when the real rapist gave a confession that was confirmed by DNA evidence. Lastly, internalized false confessions are those in which innocent but vulnerable suspects, exposed to highly suggestive interrogation tactics, not only confess but come to believe they...
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