Most of us scratch our heads when we hear about an incidence of someone being found innocent, despite being convicted of a crime by a jury. We think, “How could the jury have gotten it so wrong?”
But we really sit up and notice when not only an innocent person is sent to prison, not just on an eyewitness’s testimony or such, but on the convicted person’s own confession! What could lead an innocent person to confess to a crime they did not commit?
Sadly, this happens far more often than you might realize. Somewhere between 20 to 25% of all DNA exonerations involve innocent people who confessed to the crime. DNA exonerations are where a crime’s evidence is re-evaluated and tested using modern DNA discovery procedures not available at the time the crime was committed that prove the crime could not have been committed by the person serving time for the crime in prison.
A new article by Saul Kassin (2008) looks at some of the reasons innocent people confess. He describes three primary types of false confessions:
- Voluntary — The person confesses to a crime they did not commit without prompting from the police.
- Compliant — The person confesses to a crime through inducement or the process of the police interrogation.
- Internalized — The person confesses to a crime because they are high vulnerable and are exposed to suggestive interrogation tactics where they come to believe they actually committed the crime.
So what factors put innocent suspects at risk to confess? Kassin identifies three:
1. Situational risk factors
Certain police interrogation tactics commonly employed may exert too strong an influence over a person’s willingness to falsely confess. For instance, the presentation of false evidence or misinformation by the police can increase a person’s willingness to confess. Studies have shown that the introduction of false evidence (“We know you did it because we have an eyewitness that puts you at the scene of the crime”) could raise one’s willingness to sign a confession from 48 to 94%. Some people even start to believe they committed the crime!
Police interrogators are also very good at minimizing the crime, to help a person feel more comfortable and willing to confess to it. They may offer sympathy or moral justification for committing the crime, helping a person feel more free and at ease to confess. Such tactics work to gain confessions from the guilty, but also increase false confessions from the innocent.
2. Dispositional vulnerabilities
Kassin suggests that some people are “dispositionally more malleable than others,” meaning that their personalities are more prone to compliance and agreement, so as to avoid confrontation, stress or displeasing others. Some people are also more suggestible than others, meaning that during an interrogation police can lead the person into a false set of beliefs that the person will end up agreeing with. “People who are highly anxious, fearful, depressed, delusional, or otherwise psychologically disordered, and people who are mentally retarded, are particularly prone to confess under pressure,” noted Kassin.
He also singled out youth and young people at being higher risk, because they more often than not waive their right to remain quiet and not be interrogated by police (even with a parent present, because the parent often wrongly encourages the youth to cooperate with the police and answer their questions). Youth and teenagers often engage in behavior that is focused on short-term, immediate gratification and impulsivity, without taking into account future repercussions or consequences. Confessing to police in such situations may provide a teen a quick way out of a stressful situation (while causing them to confess to a crime they did not commit).
3. The phenomenology of innocence
People who are truly innocent of committing any crime naively believe that the justice system will ferret out the truth in a fair trial, ensuring a “not guilty” verdict (ala an episode of “Law and Order”). Sadly, this is rarely the case. The people say, “I did nothing wrong,” or, “I have nothing to hide.” Be that as it may, the justice system isn’t setup to protect the innocent nearly as much as it is to try cases and process people through the system as quickly as possible. If you know you’re innocent, your safest bet is to remain silent and do not talk to the police.
Need more proof? Watch this YouTube video from Prof. James Duane, a law professor at Regent Law School and a former defense attorney for all the reasons you should never talk to the police — especially if you are innocent. (And if you don’t believe him, watch the Part 2 of the video where VA Beach Police Officer George Bruch reiterates the same advice.) For instance, one of the nefarious ways discussed in the video that police get an innocent person to confess is to write an “apology letter” to the crime victim. This letter is then used as the written and signed confession at trial. And it always works.
Because once a jury hears your confession, your chances at trial decrease significantly (81% of people who were innocent but confessed and went to trial were convicted).
Kassin, S.M. (2008). False confessions: Causes, consequences and implications for reform. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(4), 249-253.