What is the Truth About False Confessions?

Do false confessions really happen? Yes they do. While it is next to impossible to come up with an estimate of how often they occur, there isn’t any doubt that they do. Of the first 225 cases exonerated by DNA through the Innocence Project, 23% of them involved false confessions.

False confessions are generally grouped into three categories:

  1. Voluntary False Confessions - Where a suspect may confess to a crime because of a pathological need for attention, or blurring of reality. Think John Mark Karr’s confession in the Jon Benet Ramsey case.
  2. Compliant False Confessions - A suspect confesses to a crime the suspect didn’t commit as a form of “plea bargaining” once the suspect comes to the conclusion that they will probably be convicted and need to minimize their damages, or they just want an interrogation to end. A famous example of this is the confessions in the 1989 Central Park jogger case.
  3. Internalized False Confessions - When a suspect truly comes to believe that they committed a crime when they really didn’t.

Iowa State University professors Stephanie Madon and Max Guyll conducted an experiment where students were given an assignment, part of which was to be completed individually and the other part with a partner. The experiment was set up so that the partner would ask some students for help with the individual task, essentially getting them to break the rules, so they would be guilty of misconduct.

Students, both innocent and guilty, were later accused of academic misconduct and asked to sign a form confessing. 93 percent of the guilty students confessed, but 43 percent of those who were innocent also agreed to sign the confession form. The stress of both groups was monitored, and appeared to play a role in the innocent parties finally breaking down to end the stress of the interrogation.

What can be done to minimize the risk of false confessions? Confirmed false confessions are higher in susceptible populations, such as teenagers, those with intellectual impairments, and the mentally ill.

Some questionable police interrogation tactics have also been blamed for increasing the risk of a false confession. When police lie to the suspects being interrogated about evidence, especially scientific evidence, such as the existence of DNA and fingerprints that don’t exist, suspects have been more likely to falsely confess. Promises of leniency, or tactics such as minimizing culpability, or suggesting that the suspect succumbed to peer pressure, tactics
encouraged by advocates of confrontational methods such as the Reid Interrogation Technique, have been blamed as well.

A relatively new interrogation approach, High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), shows promise in minimizing false confessions. HIG is the result of a collaborative effort between the FBI, CIA, and Pentagon in the wake of the Abu Ghraib Scandal. The purpose of HIG is to foster non-coercive interrogations by getting the suspect to do most of the talking and having the interrogators do most of the listening.

The federal government is encouraging local law enforcement agencies to study and implement the HIG philosophies. The LAPD has been using HIG for the last several years with good success. Hopefully, HIG will continue to be implemented and perfected by law enforcement to minimize the risk of false confessions.

We can all agree that the last thing anybody in the criminal justice system should want, or encourage, is for an innocent person to falsely confess to a crime they didn’t commit.