Understanding False Confessions: How Reid Leads to False Confessions

As a lawyer, as a private citizen, you see a lot of injustice. You see a lot of people who should have been punished and are not, and people who were punished wrongfully are not vindicated. Fiction is sort of a way to set the record straight, and let people at least believe that justice can be achieved and the right outcomes can occur.

– David Baldacci

Winston Smith

In the last post in this series, we concluded the overview of the Reid Technique. Remember, the Reid Technique is the most widely used interview and interrogation method used in the United States. Many of the readers of this blog may be live in the United States. While the Reid Technique may, at least to some, seem reasonable at face value,  it is not. The Reid Technique is a bear trap, a psychological torture device. This method is highly likely to elicit a false confession, resulting in a wrongful conviction, from those who undergo it.

There has been much research done to explore the possible connection between the Reid Technique and false confessions. When asked to describe the Reid method, Saul Kassin, an expert on false confessions, has stated that:

The Reid Technique is inherently coercive. The interrogator’s refusal to listen to a suspect’s denials creates feelings of hopelessness, which are compounded by the fake file and by lies about the evidence. At this point, short-term thinking takes over. Confession opens something of an escape hatch, so it is only natural that some people choose it. (Starr, 2013)

This sentiment is widespread throughout the academic community (Gallini 2009; Moore & Fitzsimmons 2011; Kassin 2005; Kassin 2009). It is believed that “[i]n the guilt-presumptive Reid environment, eliciting truth and eliciting a confession amount to the same thing (Hirsch 2104, 815).” This is so incredibly important to understanding why the Reid Technique is rotten to the core. When the search for the truth is directly linked to eliciting a confession how can it not be obvious that this method is corrupted? How can we trust this method to be correct?

Within the Reid Technique, there are three identifiable factors that lead to false confessions: isolation, confrontation, and minimization (Kassin 2005, 221).

Isolation occurs primarily in the interrogation room and has the effect of increasing the anxiety and the incentive to escape for the subject (ibid). These situations create an environment for the subject wherein he or she is “stressed, anxious, scared, confused, without social support, and presented with falsely constrained alternatives (Moore & Fitzsimmons 2011, 513).” Studies have consistently shown that fatigue and sleep deprivation, which come hand in hand with isolation, “can heighten susceptibility to influence and impair complex decision-making abilities (Kassin 2005, 221).” When analyzing proven false confessions, it has been found that the interrogations that lasted 6-12 hours had a 34% false confession rate which increased to 39% to when the confessions lasted 12-24 hours (ibid).

Confrontation is when the subject is “accused of the crime, presented with evidence, real or manufactured, and blocked from denial (ibid).” It has been demonstrated through numerous studies that individuals will yield to police interrogators when they are made to believe that the police have “strong evidence against them (ibid).” What is important to note is that it may not “occur to an innocent suspect that he is in an adversarial situation (and is being lied to) until it is too late (Moore & Fitzsimmons 2011, 515).” Additional studies have also demonstrated the link between false evidence and a higher risk of innocent individuals to falsely confess and internalize blame for the outcome of the crime that they did not do (ibid). A study conducted by Kassin and Kiechel in 1996 found that the presentation of false information to innocent subjects increased their false confession rates from 48% to 94% (ibid). Another study found that “doctored video evidence can induce people to provide false eyewitness testimony against another person” and can compel a person to falsely confess and believe that they had committed the crime in question (Moore & Fitzsimmons 2011, 516).

Minimization is a strategy used by the interrogator when the interrogator presents the suspected crime in such a way that it seems “morally justified” which is then used to lead the subject “to see confession as a possible means of ‘escape’ (ibid).” A study conducted by Russano et al in 2005 empirically demonstrated minimization’s effect on producing false confessions. Innocent subjects were accused of a crime and the experimenter would then engage in minimization behavior such as promising leniency if the subject confessed, making minimization remarks, and using both or neither of the two tactics (Kassin 2005, 222). The rate of confessions was higher in the group where leniency was given than when it was not, and higher in groups where minimization tactics were used versus a group where they were not used (ibid). When minimization and leniency were given there was a “seven-fold increase in false confessions (Moore & Fitzsimmons 2011, 519).”  

What is important to note is that in its fifth edition, Reid and Associates make a note to their inductees that “explicitly telling suspects that they face certain punishment unless they confess and promising leniency if they do confess can indeed break down the innocent” and that this type of tactic is to be avoided at all costs (Hirsch 2014, 821). While this is a promising step with Reid, when analyzing what they tell their interrogators to do instead is still very worrying. In their explanation of the confrontation step, Reid guides their users to not threaten “‘I will not only charge you with this offense but also with obstruction of justice, which involves a mandatory prison sentence’” as Reid states that this would make it appealing for the suspect to confess (ibid). What is key is that this “risk extends only to a direct threat of inevitable consequences; ‘[m]erely discussing real consequences’ is unproblematic (ibid).” When updating their use of minimization, the authors of Reid do not allow statements such as, “‘if this is the first time you did something like this, I’ll talk to the judge and make sure that he gives you probation,’” as this also makes it much more appealing for the suspect to confess (ibid). Instead, Reid allows statements such as “‘if this is something that happened on the spur of the moment, that would be important to include in my report’ (ibid).” Reid states that this type of statement only provides incentives for guilty suspects to confess (Hirsch 2014, 821-822).

What has been proven is that Reid interrogators are able to break down their suspect to a point where it seems futile to continue to maintain innocence (Hirsch 2014, 822). This instills the feeling that leniency is only a confession away “without [the interrogators] making explicit threats and promises” while, in contrast, the authors of Reid believe that this method is effective if the interrogators “do not cross the line into definitive threats and punishments (ibid).” To resolve this split, Hirsch looks at a section of the Reid manual wherein it effectively states that there is a “possibility that implied threats and promises can lead people to draw conclusions about their prospective treatment” but that the conclusions would not affect an innocent person’s decision making (ibid). Hirsch responds to this aside stating:

It seems odd that the authors only “acknowledge the possibility” that suspects may be led by minimization themes to consider themselves better off confessing. The tendency of such tactics, in conjunction with confrontation, to produce that conclusion by a suspect is essential to the Reid Technique. Suddenly, 350 pages in, the authors seem uncertain about the effectiveness of their own methods. (Hirsch 2014, 823)

While maintaining their own technique’s effectiveness, Reid continues to operate under an assumption that an innocent person would not act against their own self-interest (ibid). What the authors fail to understand is that “they themselves carefully cultivated conditions that create desperation to escape and thus compromise the rationality of the innocent suspect’s calculations (ibid).” Remarking on Reid’s attempt to modernize and reform their practices, Eric Shepherd, a psychologist who assisted in the development of the PEACE method, states “What you see now is a rear-guard action to defend the indefensible (Douglas 2013).”

As a result of the analysis of the underlying assumption that an innocent person would not act against their own self-interest, there has also been a revised analysis of the nine steps of the Reid interrogation. The authors of Reid have responded to criticism from Dr. Richard Leo who has described the first step of the Reid interrogation process as an exercise in making the subject believe that their situation is “helpless (Hirsch 2014, 824).” The authors of Reid counter this notion by stating in their text that it is “improper to tell the suspect that he is facing inevitable consequences (ibid).” Crucial to Dr. Leo’s point is that he does not state that they explicitly do, but it is a “predictable” result of the Reid technique as the text of Reid instructs interrogators to “communicate ‘absolutely certainty’ of the suspect’s guilt (ibid).” Adding to the first step, the steps dealing with “‘handling denials’ and ‘overcoming objections’” help contribute to the subject’s feeling of futility (ibid).

The seventh step of the Reid Interrogation, in which the interrogator asks the subject an alternative question that provides the option of the suspect to pick to confess to an “acceptable” and “unacceptable” portion of the crime, has come under heavy criticism (Inbau et al 1986, 80; ibid). What is still at issue with Hirsch is why any individual, regardless of guilt, would confess to any part of the crime in question if not as a direct result of their sense of futility (ibid). Hirsch concludes that while the text of Reid “eschews” this characterization, “[p]roducing a feeling of helplessness via relentless confrontation is central to the Reid Technique…(ibid).”

Hirsch provides a warning to those who read his work, writing:

Even if one is not satisfied that the causal connection between the Reid Technique and false confessions has been sufficiently established, should not the criminal justice system err in the direction of resisting a method widely believed (by those who have studied it) to contribute to false confessions? While we await more definitive proof, numerous innocent people are at risk. (Hirsch 2014, 825)

Simply put, the Reid Interview and Interrogation technique is “a guilt-presumptive, accusatory, manipulative process–and it packs a powerful psychological punch (Crane et al. 2016, 12).” Now with all this in mind, remember some of Reid’s most prominent users are the CIA, DEA, DoD, FBI, and private government police. These are organizations that we depend on to get it right, to get the bad guy, to keep us safe, to protect us.

Want to help make a change? Consider supporting groups such as the Innocence Project. Get educated about police reform and get involved in your local, state, and national elections. We all must fight to eradicate ineffective, biased police tactics that harm all of us.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Drewdlecam

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