Since 1989, at least 2,480 people have been exonerated of the crimes they were found guilty of. Often enough, they were exonerated based on DNA evidence that pointed to the real perpetrator. Far too often, they were exonerated after a guilty plea or even confessing to the crime.
We know they are innocent, but they still confessed. Why would anyone do that?
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there are two types of defendants who are the most likely to falsely confess to crimes: Minors and people with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities.
In fact, of 2,400 people who were exonerated, 12% had falsely confessed. Of those who did, 36% were under 18 at the time of the alleged offense. Another 69% had a mental illness or developmental disability. Adults with no mental disability made up only 7% of exonerees who had falsely confessed.
But still, 7% of these exonerees were adults with no reported mental disability. People under 18 and people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities are often easy for police to manipulate, and police take unfair advantage far too often. But what would make a mentally healthy adult confess?
Lying and psychological pressure
Saul Kassin, a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is among the world’s top experts on police interrogation. He has worked on many cases involving false confessions, presenting his findings on the psychology of interrogation to judges, juries, lawmakers and others.
Juries have long been convinced that confessions always indicate guilt. A recent article in Science magazine cites an example of a man who confessed to a murder in 1819. He was found guilty and set to hang when it was discovered that his alleged victim was actually alive.
Kassin argues that confessions are not only convincing to juries but to police officers, forensic evidence analysts, prosecutors and judges, as well. If a suspect confesses early in the investigation, it often prompts the police to stop following other leads. Forensic analysts who know of the confession frequently allow that knowledge to affect their findings. Prosecutors and judges take a confession as a cue to stop presuming innocence.
Knowing that a false confession could derail the investigation and lead to a wrongful conviction, what could possibly convince someone to confess to something they didn’t do?
The problem may be with the most common style of interrogation used by U.S. police agencies: The Reid interrogation method.
In a Reid interrogation, the officer begins with a behavioral assessment, asking questions meant to determine if the person is lying. If the officer decides they are, they move on to a formal interrogation.
This involves repeatedly accusing the person, ignoring all denials and insisting on details. At the same time, the interrogator offers sympathy and minimizes the moral issues with the alleged offense. This is meant to ease the suspect’s path toward confession. Moreover, police in the U.S. are allowed to lie to suspects, and they routinely do.
Kassin did experiments to test whether this combination of angry authority figure and sympathetic listener produces sufficient psychological pressure to produce a false confession. He discovered that it almost certainly is. Perhaps just as important, he found that police officers, despite their training, are no better than civilians at detecting a lie.
According to Kassin, anyone could be pressured into a false confession. That’s why it’s so crucial to ask for an attorney’s guidance before agreeing to talk to police.