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...

References: . An encyclopedic review by a leading clinical researcher in Great Britain. Kassin, S.M., & Gudjonsson, G.H. (2004). The psychology of confessions: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 33–67. A comprehensive overview of research and policy issues. Lassiter, G.D. (Ed.). (2004). Interrogations, confessions, and entrapment. New York: Kluwer Press. An edited volume containing original chapters by leading researchers. Leo, R.A. (2008). Police interrogation and American justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. An in-depth analysis of police interrogations and the confessions they produce. Vrij, A. (2008). Detecting lies and deceit: Pitfalls and opportunities. Chichester, England: Wiley. An overview of the rapidly growing science of lie detection.
REFERENCES Bond, C.F., & DePaulo, B.M. (2006). Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 10, 214–234. Drizin, S.A., & Colgan, B.A. (2004). Tales from the juvenile confessions front. In G.D. Lassiter (Ed.), Interrogations, confessions, and entrapment (pp. 127–162). New York: Kluwer Academic. Drizin, S.A., & Leo, R.A. (2004). The problem of false confessions in the post-DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, 891–1007. Gudjonsson, G.H. (2003). The science of interrogations and confessions: A handbook. Chichester, England: Wiley. ¨ Hartwig, M., Granhag, P.A., Stromwall, L., & Vrij, A. (2005). Detecting deception via strategic closure of evidence. Law and Human Behavior, 29, 469–484. Inbau, F.E., Reid, J.E., Buckley, J.P., & Jayne, B.C. (2001). Criminal interrogation and confessions (4th ed.). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen. Kassin, S.M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215–228. Kassin, S.M., & Fong, C.T. (1999). ‘‘I’m innocent!’’ Effects of training on judgments of truth and deception in the interrogation room. Law and Human Behavior, 23, 499–516. Kassin, S.M., & Kiechel, K.L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: Compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science, 7, 125–128. Kassin, S.M., Leo, R.A., Meissner, C.A., Richman, K.D., Colwell, L.H., Leach, A.-M., & La Fon, D. (2007). Police interviewing and
Recent DNA exonerations reveal three sets of problems with confession evidence: (a) Police cannot accurately distinguish between truth tellers and liars; (b) certain psychological interrogation tactics put innocents at risk to confess, especially if they are young, mentally impaired, or otherwise vulnerable; and (c) judges and juries intuitively tend to trust confessions, even if they know that these confessions were coerced. Having identified these problems, psychological scientists now seek solutions that inform policies and practices. One goal is to improve the quality of confession evidence. Hence,
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interrogation: A self-report survey of police practices and beliefs. Law and Human Behavior, 31, 381–400. Kassin, S.M., Meissner, C.A., & Norwick, R.J. (2005). ‘‘I’d know a false confession if I saw one’’: A comparative study of college students and police investigators. Law and Human Behavior, 29, 211–227. Kassin, S.M., & Norwick, R.J. (2004). Why suspects waive their Miranda rights: The power of innocence. Law and Human Behavior, 28, 211–221. Kassin, S.M., & Sukel, H. (1997). Coerced confessions and the jury: An experimental test of the ‘‘harmless error’’ rule. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 27–46. Kassin, S.M., & Wrightsman, L.S. (1985). Confession evidence. In S. Kassin & L. Wrightsman (Eds.), The psychology of evidence and trial procedure (pp. 67–94). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Leo, R.A. (1996). Inside the interrogation room. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 86, 266–303. Meissner, C.A., & Kassin, S.M. (2002). ‘‘He’s guilty!’’: Investigator bias in judgments of truth and deception. Law and Human Behavior, 26, 469–480.
Oberlander, L.B., & Goldstein, N.E. (2001). A review and update on the practice of evaluating Miranda comprehension. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 19, 453–471. Owen-Kostelnik, J., Reppucci, N.D., & Meyer, J.R. (2006). Testimony and interrogation of minors: Assumptions about maturity and morality. American Psychologist, 61, 286–304. Redlich, A.D. (2007). Double jeopardy in the interrogation room: Young age and mental illness. American Psychologist, 62, 609–611. Russano, M.B., Meissner, C.A., Narchet, F.M., & Kassin, S.M. (2005). Investigating true and false confessions within a novel experimental paradigm. Psychological Science, 16, 481–486. Santos, F. (2006). DNA evidence frees a man imprisoned for half his life. The New York Times, September 20, 2006, p. A1. Vrij, A., Fisher, R., Mann, S., & Leal, S. (2006). Detecting deception by manipulating cognitive load. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 141–142. White, W.S. (2003). Confessions in capital cases. University of Illinois Law Review, 2003, 979–1036.
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