False Confessions – Do Innocent People Really Confess to Crimes?

“The confession” remains the most persuasive piece of evidence for most people – people who do not work in the court system and who have not been exposed to the very real phenomenon of false confessions…

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Why would someone confess to a crime, a crime that they will go to prison for, if they didn’t do it?

It’s just a dirty trick by shady defense lawyers, isn’t it?

The truth is that more than one in four people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted after they made a false confession…

Why Do False Confessions Happen?

People make false confessions for a variety of reasons, but pressure from law enforcement is a common denominator for most cases.

The bottom line is, for some people, when they feel like a confession (which usually consists of repeating what the detective is insisting happened) will help them more than a denial, they confess.

There are plenty of factors that could influence whether a person confesses to a crime they did not commit, including:

  • Coercion from law enforcement;
  • Intoxication;
  • Mental capacity;
  • Age;
  • Not understanding the law;
  • Threats by law enforcement;
  • Fear of violence from the guilty person; or
  • Not understanding the situation that they are in.

Children or people with mental disabilities may feel that they must agree with authority figures – if they do not, they might be punished worse.

When police insist over and over that a thing happened, some people become genuinely confused and begin to question their own memory – especially when police are lying to them and claiming that there is evidence that proves their involvement or that other witnesses have said they were involved.

Many people just don’t have the ability to understand and resist the coercive interrogation tactics that are used by law enforcement – if a police officer is saying some version of:

  • I did a bad thing, but they understand why;
  • If I admit to it, I can go home; but
  • If I don’t admit to it, I’m going to prison and things will be much worse…

How many people would admit to it?

What if they were a child? A mentally disabled person? An intoxicated person? Do you still think false confessions are impossible?

The Reid Technique

Consider what may be the most widely used methodology for interrogations in the US – the Reid technique. In its most basic form, the Reid technique has nine steps:

1) Direct confrontation. Advise the suspect that the evidence has led the police to the individual as a suspect. Offer the person an early opportunity to explain why the offense took place.

2) Try to shift the blame away from the suspect to some other person or set of circumstances that prompted the suspect to commit the crime. That is, develop themes containing reasons that will psychologically justify or excuse the crime. Themes may be developed or changed to find one to which the accused is most responsive.

3) Try to minimize the frequency of suspect denials.

4) At this point, the accused will often give a reason why he or she did not or could not commit the crime. Try to use this to move towards the acknowledgment of what they did.

5) Reinforce sincerity to ensure that the suspect is receptive.

6) The suspect will become quieter and listen. Move the theme discussion towards offering alternatives. If the suspect cries at this point, infer guilt.

7) Pose the “alternative question”, giving two choices for what happened; one more socially acceptable than the other. The suspect is expected to choose the easier option but whichever alternative the suspect chooses, guilt is admitted. As stated above, there is always a third option which is to maintain that they did not commit the crime.

8) Lead the suspect to repeat the admission of guilt in front of witnesses and develop corroborating information to establish the validity of the confession.

9) Document the suspect’s admission or confession and have him or her prepare a recorded statement (audio, video or written).

Of course, it is much more involved and complex than these nine steps – the method for getting confessions from suspects usually consists of tricking the suspect into confessing… a method that will also, unfortunately, result in tricking innocent people to confess.

The Black Dahlia Murder

People confess to crimes they didn’t commit, even when police detectives aren’t in their face pressuring them…

Consider the Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles – after Elizabeth Short was murdered, mutilated, and her body left in a parking lot, over 500 people confessed to the crime. A crime that still has not been solved over 70 years later.

How Can We Prevent False Confessions?

So, how do we make sure we are not tricking innocent people into confessing to crimes they did not commit?

First, we must care.

When a detective or law enforcement officer has already made up their mind that a person is guilty, they tend to push that person until they have confessed. They will press witnesses to give testimony or statements that corroborate what the detective already believes to be true. In practice, however, detectives often get it wrong.

When they get it wrong, they tend to dig in and refuse to admit they were wrong. They don’t want to get sued, they don’t want to look like a jerk, they don’t want to lose standing or hurt their reputation, and innocent people go to prison…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Well, if he didn’t do it he did something else…” Uttering those words should be an immediate firing offense for any police officer or prosecutor.

How else can we improve the “quality” of confessions? According to the Innocence project, mandatory recording of interrogations is the single best tool to prevent false confessions:

The electronic recording of interrogations, from beginning to end, is the single best reform available to prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions. This record will improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects.

But, “mandatory” recording is meaningless unless there is some way to enforce it – a common practice is to interrogate a suspect until the detective gets a confession, and then turn on the recording equipment and have them repeat their “confession.”

Police officers will not go to jail for obstruction of justice or subornation of perjury after they tell a suspect (or witness) what to say and then threaten them until they repeat it. They won’t be disciplined by their police department, either.

The only way to enforce a mandatory recording requirement is to dismiss the charges against the suspect, taking away the “benefit” of the coerced statement and putting public pressure on law enforcement to do it right the next time…

But, we already exclude confessions that are coerced or obtained in violation of Miranda, right? Do we, really? If you have ever tried to prove to a judge who is biased in favor of the state that a confession that is not recorded was coerced…

SC’s Corroboration Rule

For what it’s worth, South Carolina and many states have a “corroboration rule.” Any “confession,” or even an “admission” that can be used against a person, must be corroborated by some other evidence that the person committed the crime.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Grant B. Smaldone represents clients in criminal cases in SC state and federal courts in Charleston, SC, and the surrounding area.

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send us a message to speak with a defense lawyer today.