Why do innocent people confess? When I was a cop it was my goal to gain control of the suspect during the interrogation. So that I could elicit the confession from the target of my interrogation. My usual approach was to build a comfort level with the suspect by talking about areas of common concern, ie., small talk about their family, sports, the community or issues of the day before starting to discuss the facts of the case.
Agenda driven interrogations can produce false results, in that they produce responses deemed incriminatory. In the movie “My Cousin Vinny” Ralph Maccio says in response to the Sheriff’s questions, “I shot the clerk” it was clear to those viewing the scene that by tone and intonation that statement was meant as a question he was asking the Sheriff. But in the Sheriff’s agenda driven interrogation, as listener, it was understood as a confession to murder.
Every husband who has said something to his wife and she heard something completely different than what he thought he said understands that the agenda of the listener substantially impacts the information received.
In human communication, the specific words used are usually only about 20% of the communication. With body language, eye contact, tone and other factors making the majority of the actual communication. The police narrative report of an interview almost never conveys these essential dynamics. Only video recorded statements can convey the essence of a communication during an interrogation.
It takes a skilled lawyer to recognize a false confession and understand how to prove it was false and protect the innocent client from being sacrificed upon the altar of justice.
For me interviews with witnesses had a completely different agenda. Where the gathering of information with a focus on the details was my goal for how I conducted interviews.
The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.
The factors that can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation include:
ignorance of the law
fear of violence
the actual infliction of harm
the threat of a harsh sentence
misunderstanding the situation
Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable — children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation.
People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired mental state due to mental illness, drugs or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt.
Mentally capable adults also give false confessions due to a variety of factors like the length of interrogation, exhaustion or a belief that they can be released after confessing and prove their innocence later.
From threats to torture
Police interrogation, largely based on the Reid technique, is expressly designed to elicit a confession from a suspect — facts and evidence be damned. Right about now you’re probably shouting, “Those coppers’ll never get a false confession outta me, see!” But let’s hope you never make it out of the 1920s and have to find out just how wrong you are. Because you’ll confess all right, and here’s how they’ll make you do it …
#7. They’ll Pretend You’re Not Being Interrogated
After watching the entirety of The Wire and, well, working at Cracked, much of the public has a dramatized idea of how the whole “getting arrested” thing works. After roughing you up a little, the police will cuff you and read you your Miranda rights. If you pay close attention to the first three of said rights, you’ll know that, so long as the only word you allow to escape your firmly clenched lips is “lawyer,” then you’ve effectively cast a magic spell that protects you from false prosecution. But why would you do that if you’re innocent? Unless … are you some kind of murderer?
Plus it doesn’t always work that way. If you’re being detained, police are required to read you the Miranda rights before anything you say can be admissible in court, but the key word there is “if.” Police officers, as a general rule, are more aware of this requirement than you are, and that’s why they’ll often avoid detaining a suspect until after they incriminate themselves in an unofficial (yet completely admissible) interview. You’re not under arrest; you’re free to go at any time. This isn’t an interrogation; it’s a friendly conversation. And you wouldn’t refuse to interact during a friendly conversation, would you? Oh, you would? Why is that? Is it because, um, you’re a murderer?
“A killer like you would invoke Sixth Amendment rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Even if this “conversation” does morph into an interrogation, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience Hollywood’s most-echoed monologue firsthand: A study of police interrogations during the ’90s found that more than 80 percent of suspects waived their Miranda rights — just signed their protections away as nonchalantly as you granted Apple your everlasting soul when you accepted the iTunes EULA — all to avoid making themselves look suspicious. Because those rights are for the guilty, and you’re not some kind of murderer, are you?
#6. Once a “suspect” determination is made it is assumed You’re Guilty
Innocent until proven guilty. It’s the single most important tenet of the American justice system. Without it, we’d all be living in Judge Dredd, which is only cool if you’re Stallone. You’re not. You’re Rob Schneider. It’s also a damn nigh impossible ideal for a police officer to uphold, considering the fact that the way they’re trained to interrogate suspects is effectively forcing them to think that every single suspect is guilty.
“You just ‘happen’ to exist at the same time as the victim in Earth’s billions of years of history? Seems convenient.”
You see, interrogators are trained to use body language like posture, gestures, and eye contact to determine when someone is lying. The problem is that most of the cues that officers are instructed to observe are simply behaviors that people display when they’re nervous. They’re the types of things you’d do if, say, a police officer were questioning you as a murder suspect. In that situation, you are absolutely going to act nervous. That anxiety tells the police officer you’re lying, so he’s going to question you even harder. Harder questioning will make you even more nervous, which will in turn make him even more convinced that you’re guilty, and so on and so forth in a snowball of bullshit that psychologists have coined the Othello error, named after the way Desdemona’s behavior increasingly convinces Othello of her guilt until he finally snaps and murders the shit out of her. Remember, in this analogy, you’re Desdemona. Desdemona Schneider.
#5. They’ll Minimize The Crime
So we’ve reached an impasse. The police interrogator knows you’re guilty; you know you’re not guilty. But you’re a tough cookie — like, ginger snap tough — and getting a little worked up isn’t going to crumble one such as you. This is around the time the cop — Detective Dirk Steelgirth — gets friendly. Makes it sound as if the crime wasn’t so bad after all, and even if you’re the guilty party, that’s hardly your fault. Also, you maybe wanna grab a beer after? Watch a sunset?
“I know a place with a great view.”
This is a technique called minimization. It’s an attempt to get you in an agreeable mood by downplaying the seriousness of the situation. If an interrogator were to sit down with a suspected rapist, for instance, he might say, “If she hadn’t gone around dressed like that, you wouldn’t be in this room now.” We feel like we should take a long shower and then be arrested just for making up that example. Only we shouldn’t, because that’s an actual quote from an actual police interrogation manual.
#4. They’ll (Legally!) Lie About Evidence
When Gary Gauger’s parents were brutally murdered in their home late one night, the police brought Gauger in for questioning. Convinced of his guilt (as comic books have taught us, all villains have alliterative names), interrogators relentlessly questioned Gauger, who had not requested an attorney because, again, innocent people aren’t supposed to need attorneys. When a confession wasn’t forthcoming, detectives told Gauger they had found bloody clothes in his bedroom and a bloody knife in his pocket. Gauger finally broke and, after his resulting confession, was sentenced to death and spent three years behind bars before the actual killers — two motorcycle gang members — were caught bragging about the murder.
There was never a bloody knife. No bloody clothes. In fact, there was never any evidence indicating Gauger was the murderer at all — police just hauled him in while his parents’ ravaged corpses were still warm and started nailing him with charges because there’s something about the name Gary that’s super untrustworthy.
He did it. All of it.
How can they get away with blatantly misleading a suspect in such a manner? Well, quite simply, because they can. As long as their little white lies aren’t found by a court to be coercive (e.g., “You will lose your state benefits if you don’t confess”), police interrogators are generally allowed to lie about having physical evidence, eyewitnesses, or the fact that their weighty dongs are capable of invoking blunt head trauma in tight-lipped interviewees.
#3. They’ll Lie About Lie Detector or CVSA Computer Voice Stress Analyzer Test Results
It’s time to break out the big guns — time to wire your ass up to a polygraph machine or CVSA machine and curb-stomp your self-esteem by deceiving you into believing you’ve failed the test. Think about it. Why else would cops use lie detectors during interrogations? As a general rule, the things aren’t even admissible in court, because results vary widely from subject to subject and are entirely reliant on the interpretation of the person performing the test. Surely the person doing said interpretation is an expert, though, right? Of course they are! Just maybe not in things like psychology or physiology or actually using a polygraph machine.
“Just like they showed us in vet school.”
Take the case of Jeff Deskovic, a 16-year-old who was accused of raping and murdering a classmate (spoiler: He didn’t). During his interrogation, a sheriff’s investigator dressed up as a civilian polygraph expert (read: nerd) hyped Deskovic up on a bladder-bursting load of coffee (important because caffeine amps up the very processes that a polygraph machine measures) and subjected him to a multi-hour lie detector test. When Deskovic wouldn’t fess up, the investigator said, “What do you mean you didn’t do it; you just told me through the test you did. We just want you to verbally confirm this.” Then, just to twist the screws, a “good cop” entered the room and said that he was the only thing standing between Deskovic and a severe ass-beating by literally every other cop at the station.
Predictably, the interview ended with Deskovic weaving a completely fictional account of how he’d raped and murdered the victim before falling to the floor and sobbing in the fetal position. That wasn’t an exaggeration on our part. That’s what he did, and the very least of what we’d do in his place.
#2. They’ll Keep You There Until You Break
A study of false confession cases revealed that the average admission of guilt came after 16 goddamned hours of interrogation. Take the average American workday, double it, and imagine sitting in a stark room for that amount of time while our (former) friend Detective Steelgirth relentlessly hammers his insistence that you’re a criminal into your cranium. Even fucking Professor X couldn’t withstand that level of mental pressure.
And 16 hours is just the average. Take Stefan Kiszko, England’s wrongful conviction poster boy: He was interrogated for two days straight after being accused of the sexual assault and murder of an 11-year-old girl. This was a man with the mental capacity of a 12-year-old, yet he still had the wherewithal to maintain his innocence for two entire days. When Kiszko finally did confess, it was only because police officers told him that was the only way he’d get to go home.
Perhaps Kiszko placed a naive faith in things like “evidence” and “a jury of his peers.” If so, he was correct on the first count: The main piece of evidence from the crime scene was sperm, which Kiszko was incapable of producing due to some faulty plumbing. But he was wrong about it mattering one iota: Having confessed to the crime, he was convicted and sent to prison, where he endured 16 agonizing years of brutal beatings by fellow inmates before ultimately being exonerated and … promptly dying of a heart attack.
Oh, were you expecting a happy ending to this story? Sorry about that. Happy endings are for Stallones, not Schneiders.
#1. You Will Be Persuaded To Plead Guilty
Let’s say you manage to emerge from your interrogation panic-induced-false-confession-free. If you’re among the lucky percentile of people who can afford a defense lawyer, good for you! You’ll likely see your day in court. For everyone else, you’ll be assigned a public defender who isn’t given enough time to prepare a case and knows significantly less about your case than the prosecution. These attorneys often don’t even think they can win, so they may not even try. Instead, they’ll do their damnedest to convince you to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence — and 97 percent of people do.
Here’s how it plays out in real life: At 17 years old, Brian Banks was accused of rape. The evidence was on his side, but his defense attorney sat him down and flat-out told him that a jury would convict him on the grounds of being “a large black teenager” alone.
“Just a reminder: The faster you say the G-word, the faster we go to lunch.”
She gave him 10 minutes to choose between A) entering a guilty plea and receiving six years in prison, or B) being black in a courtroom and receiving 41. Guess which option he chose. Go on, guess.
False confessions resulting from shitty interrogation techniques are but a surface symptom of a deeper infection within the criminal justice system. And just because a confession comes in the form of a trade-off for a lighter sentence, don’t think that makes you any less guilty in the eyes of the world — studies have shown that jurors weigh a confession more heftily than any other type of evidence. If you say you’re a murderer, your fellow man will gladly take your word for it. It turns out we’re quite trusting in that regard.
Astonishingly, according to the Innocence Project more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.
Why do innocent people confess?
Reforms and Solutions
Mandatory Recording of Interrogations
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.
In some false confession cases, details of the crime are inadvertently communicated to a suspect by police during questioning. Arguably this is what occurred in the Ryan Ferguson murder conviction where Chuck Erickson dreamed years later that they committed the Kent Heitholt murder with the details of his dream provided by the police.
It is not uncommon later, when a suspect knows the details of the crime, the police take the knowledge as evidence of guilt. Often, threats or promises are made to the suspect off camera and then the camera is turned on, resulting in a false confession. Without an objective record of the entire custodial interrogation, it is difficult to gauge the reliability of the confession.
For law enforcement agencies, recording interrogations can prevent disputes about how a suspect was treated, create a clear record of a suspect’s statements and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system. Recording interrogations can also deter officers from using illegal or devious tactics to secure a confession.
More than 20 states, from North Carolina to Massachusetts to Illinois, require the recording of custodial interrogations through law or court action. More than a thousand additional law enforcement agencies voluntarily record interrogations. A 2004 study conducted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of more than 200 locations that implemented this reform found that police departments overwhelmingly embrace the measure as good law enforcement practice whose time has come. Proactive policies like these have been adopted because the practice benefits police and prosecutors as well as innocent suspects.
Recording the entire interview of suspects or witnesses is the surest protection of the truth and the integrity of the justice system. Prosecutors and law enforcement bureaucrats generally resist this safeguard to protect their ability to manipulate the system to obtain a conviction without regard to actual guilt.