Understanding False Confessions: The History

Torture fails to make us safe, but it certainly makes us less free.

– Jerrold Nadler

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch

As with most things, police interview and interrogation tactics have changed over time. While far from perfect, the current methods of interview and interrogation are far from those practiced in the past which were barbaric and abhorrent. To understand where we came from we have to understand where we started.

Before our current methods of interview and interrogation, the typical interview technique used by most police in the United States was referred to as the “third degree (Kassin et al 2009, 1).” The “third degree” were interrogation techniques that primarily used “physical[y] aversive” tactics to elicit confessions from suspects (ibid). The “physical aversive” tactics typically included “torture such as: holding a suspect’s head under water; hitting suspects with a rubber hose; forcing a suspect to stand for hours on end; and shining bright blinding lights on suspects (Porter 2011, 32).” Along with these torturous physical techniques, the “third degree” typically included “mental pain” as well (ibid). During the 1931 examination of Prohibition, President Herbert Hoover commissioned the Wickersham Commission Report which “extensively documented and revealed” the reality of the “third degree” (ibid). Following this report, the United States Supreme Court, in 1936, handed down the ruling in Brown v. State of Mississippi wherein the Court “invalidated physically coerced police confessions (ibid).” After this ruling, there was a massive “public uproar” which opposed these types of confessions and called for the reformation of the interview tactics that police used (ibid, Kassin et al 2009, 1).

What replaced the “third degree” was a two-step interrogation method wherein the first step was a “more psychologically oriented approach that rests on a combination of behavioral lie-detection methods used to separate truth tellers and liars (an interview)” while the second step focuses on the use of “social influence techniques designed to elicit confessions from the latter (an interrogation) (Kassin et al 2009, 2).” This type of interrogation method would later become known as the Reid method.  The Reid interviewing system was developed in 1947 by John E. Reid and Associates. The most important iteration of this interviewing style was presented in the textbook Criminal interrogation and confessions written by Inbau and Reid in 1962 (Kassin et al 2009, 2). The Reid method differs from the more commonly used definition of interrogation, as “REID defines interrogation in a manner hallmarked by coercion and negative connotation (Porter 2011, 31).”

John E. Reid and Associates Inc. now boasts that the Reid technique “is now the most widely used approach to question subjects in the world.” The John E. Reid and Associates Inc. lists groups such as the CIA, DEA, FBI, Homeland Security, and this writer’s own Maryland State Police as their clients. This review and analysis of this technique will be the focal point of the next few articles as we delve deep into the Reid technique and its effect on false confessions.

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