Understanding False Confessions: The Fundamentals

“But they argued as lawyers do, they twisted every answer I gave until it sounded like the opposite meaning, and I became so confused and afraid I found myself agreeing to statements that I knew were not true.”

S.J. Parris, Heresy

Photo Credit: The New York Times

This is the second installment of a series directed around the topic of False Confessions. Read the first installment here.

I’m sure that many of us cannot think of why someone would falsely confess to a crime. I mean, if you were in a police interrogation, surely you wouldn’t say that you did something that you did not do. Right? Truly that is what is the conundrum of the whole concept. What drives someone renounce their freedom? The case of Christopher Abernathy from the previous post in this series gives us insight into one answer but a look at many other stories shows that there are many other reasons why one may lose their freedom. This is a very real problem that must continually be grounded in reality because too many have lost too much to this phenomena. To attempt to understand false confessions we need to know what they are, who is at risk, and the prevalence of the problem.  

What are False Confessions?

Under a common definition, a false confession is “an admission to a criminal act–usually accompanied by a narrative of how and why the crime occurred–that the confessor did not commit (Kassin et al 2010 a, 5).” There are four ways in which confessions can be found to be false; the first way is when it is shown that the crime confessed to did not occur (ibid). The second way is when evidence shows that the confessor could not have physically committed the crime while the third is when the actual perpetrator of the crime is “apprehended and linked to the crime” (ibid). The last way is through “scientific evidence affirmatively” establishing the confessor’s innocence (ibid).

There are three types of false confessions: voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalized (Kassin & Kiechcel 1996, 125). Voluntary false confessions are when an individual confesses without any external pressure (ibid). There are various reasons for this type of confession ranging from “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” (Kassin 2008, 249). A coerced-compliant confession is one in which “a suspect confesses only to escape an averse interrogation, secure a promised benefit, or avoid a threatened harm” (Kassin & Kiechel 1996, 125). This type of confession “is an act of public compliance by a suspect who perceives that the short-term benefits of confession outweigh the long-term costs” (Kassin 2008, 249). (For this type of confession think back to Christopher Abernathy). A coerced-internalized confession is when the suspect actually begins to believe that they committed the crime (Kassin & Kiechel 1996, 125).

What is the Prevalence?

The true rate of false confessions is difficult to quantify, but research has shown that 20 to 25% of DNA exonerations were those where prisoners confessed to the police (Kassin 2008, 249). From data collected from the Innocence Project, it is known that “false confessions played a role in nearly 30% of all wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence (Crane et al 2016, 12). The National Registry of Exonerations has found that “221 exonerations since 1989 involved proven false confessions” and that “we know this number is under representative because it does not account for confessions not yet proven false nor confessions that did not result in a conviction (ibid).” The percentage of these confessions to police “is far higher in capital murder cases, and that these discovered instances represent the tip of an iceberg (Kassin 2008, 249).”

Through analyzing 125 false confessions, it was found that “81% of the confessions occurred in murder cases, followed by rape (8%) and arson (3%) (Kassin et al 2010  a, 5).” In other words, 92% of false confessions are elicited during investigations surrounding killing someone, sexually assaulting someone, and setting property on fire; not petty crimes.  A survey of 631 North American police investigators found that the investigators estimated that innocent suspects had a 4.78% false confession rate during an interrogation (Kassin et al 2010 b, 43). While there have been many troubling facts shown, the most disheartening is the statistic that “[a] full 81% of proven false confessors whose case went to trial were convicted” and this statistic does not account for those who falsely confessed during pre-trial proceedings (Crane et al 2016, 15).

While these statistics give a view of a perverse and concerning problem, as noted by many researchers, these confirmed cases may be the tip of the iceberg because, by their very nature, false confessions are very hard to identify and then prove to be false. A confession is the strongest form of evidence in the United States court system and is, therefore, difficult to explore fully without the assistance of DNA exonerations or other means.

Who’s At-Risk?

In the study of 125 proven false confessions, it was found that 91% of the false confessors were men, and 63% were under the age of 25 and 32% under the age of 18 (Kassin 2008, 249). Children are highly susceptible to false confessions; “children are two to three times more likely to falsely confess during interrogation than adults (Crane et al 2016, 12).” A study of 340 exonerations determined that “42% of juveniles studied had falsely confessed, compared to only 13% of adults (ibid).” In addition, a “history of substance misuse and victimization are commonly associated with false confessions among young people (Gudjonsson & Pearse 2011, 35).” What is most troubling is that when presented with a false confession to sign, “a majority of youthful participants” signed the confession without protest, according to a laboratory study (Crane et al 2016, 12). In addition, in the study of 125 proven false confessions, 22% of these false confessors “were mentally retarded, and 10% had a diagnosed mental illness (Kassin 2008, 249).” In a study of 90 Icelandic prisoners, it was found that “participants reporting ADHD symptoms in adulthood were significantly more likely than the other participants to claim that they had made a false confession to police at some time in their lives (Gudjonsson et al 2008, 1041).”

Understanding the demographics of those who are most affected by false confessions provides a further context of how this topic affects real people. When looking at the demographics, it is clear that those who fall prey to a false confession are those who are, generally, among the most vulnerable in society.

The facts and statistics presented paint  dim picture of interrogation and interview. Truly these facts call for reform, as there is a need to provide protections for all of us, especially the most vulnerable. Additionally, as a rising tide raises all boats, the adoption of a system that reduces false confessions in the vulnerable groups will also help reduce false confessions across the board.

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