“No other class of evidence is so profoundly prejudicial… triers of fact accord confessions such heavy weight in their determinations that the introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court superfluous, and the real trial, for all practical purposes, occurs when the confession is obtained.”
– Colorado vs. Connelly United States Supreme Court – 49 U.S. 157, 182 (1986)
As we saw in the case of Amanda Knox, isolating, baiting, antagonizing, berating, and even befriending a suspect is likely to produce a confession or, at least, a statement that the prosecutor can use to place the suspect at the scene of the crime. Aside from considerations such as our desire as a civilized society to treat humanely those accused of crimes, the suspect’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and the accused’s Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer, the tactics employed by seasoned homicide detectives should be condemned because they often produce unreliable or false confessions. Given the importance a jury is likely to attach to a confession, a false confession is a tragedy that should be avoided at all costs.
Unless his Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer has a comprehensive understanding of the interrogation tactics employed by detectives, the cross-examination skills to cripple the detective’s credibility, and the oratory ability to undermine the jury’s confidence in the integrity of the confession, the individual who has given a false confession will be convicted. No detective is ever going to admit that he shouted at a suspect, threatened to send him up the river, or ignored his pleas for food, access to a telephone, sleep, or to end the interrogation. Many, if not most, Massachusetts detectives are willing to put their credibility up against that of the individual accused of a serious crime. These detectives view their legal obligations to advise a suspect of his Miranda rights, to provide him with access to a telephone, and to cease questioning if the suspect asserts either that wants to discontinue the interrogation or that he wants a lawyer, as minor annoyances easily sidestepped. Detectives believe it is their job to extract a confession and to lie about the means they employed to get that confession. Few juries will credit the accused when he takes the stand to plaintively describe how the detectives forced him to confess to a crime he did not commit – especially not when the detective was so nice and impressive on the stand.
False confessions are not only bad for the accused, but disastrous for society. While it is unsettling that the innocent are convicted by shoddy, shortcut oriented police work, it is almost as troubling that, because of the false confession, the actual criminal goes free. The “confession” most likely, marks the end of the investigation. Following the “confession,” the detectives will dot an “i” or cross a “t,” but the investigation is, in any real sense, over. The person truly responsible for the crime will likely go undiscovered and unprosecuted. Even if the prosecutor and the police come to realize that the “confession” coerced from a suspect was bogus, that bogus confession makes it very difficult for the prosecutor to win a conviction against the real criminal. How can a jury find beyond a reasonable doubt that the real criminal committed the crime when another individual gave a confession after being advised of his Miranda rights?
Investigating a serious crime is hard, tedious work. It’s not like the one-hour weekly cop drama. Finding witnesses, gathering and preserving any physical evidence, and piecing together the case can take weeks, months or years. When interrogating a suspect, the detectives often do not know if the forensic evidence will reveal any connection between the suspect and crime. Afraid that they will end up with no evidence of guilt or to avoid unglamourous, boring police work, they go to extremes to wring a confession out of a suspect. It is easier, so much easier, and perhaps “safer” to trap a suspect in a small room and relentlessly question him until he either hangs himself with inconsistencies or cries out in fear, frustration, exhaustion, or desperation that he committed the crime. Case solved. No following up leads, no witness interviews, no stake-outs.
“A free and voluntary confession is deserving of the highest credit, because it is presumed to flow from the strongest sense of guilt… but a confession forced from the mind of the accused by flattery of hope or by torture of fear, comes in so questionable a shape when it is to be considered as the evidence of guilt, that no credit ought to be given to it, and therefore it is rejected.” –
King vs. Jane Warwickshall, 1783
The exhausted, the isolated, the ignorant, the emotionally weak, and the frightened give false confessions. Dr. Mark Blagrove, a researcher and senior psychology lecturer at the University of Wales, states in a BBC news interview in October 2000, that sleep deprived individuals can be coached into giving affirmative answers to questions to which they could not possibly know the answers. Depriving individuals of sleep has for centuries been used by interrogators to elicit or coerce confessions – false or true. While the physical beatings may have disappeared, psychological coercion, a far more effective method, has proven a menacing and therefore worthy replacement.
The detectives interrogating the five youths accused of raping the victim in the Central Park jogger case, through the use of isolation, intimidation, threats and psychological coercion and manipulation, got not one youth, but all five youths to confess to the crime. The detectives likely congratulated themselves on their cleverness and refusal to take “no” for an answer. Unfortunately for these five youths, the victim, the detectives, and society as a whole, none of the five boys were involved in the rape. Not one. That the confessions were contradicted by the forensic evidence apparently, bothered the detectives and the prosecutors not at all. Meanwhile, the real culprit, Matias Reyes, remained at large and a threat to the city’s women. It was not until 13 years later, when irrefutable DNA evidence connected Reyes to the crime, that the prosecutors finally admitted the awful truth – that the boys had been coerced into confessing to a crime that they did not commit.
There is a wealth of information on false confessions in your local law library (usually located in the county’s main courthouse). Here is a list of suggested reading if you are interested in learning more about false confessions or the implantation of false memories:
Blagrove, M. (1996). Effects of length of sleep deprivation on interrogative suggestibility. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2(1), 48-59.
Clancy, S. A., Schacter, D. L., McNally, R. J., & Pitman, R. K. (2000). False recognition in women reporting recovered memories of sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 11(1), 26-31.
Deese, J. (1959). On the prediction of occurrence of particular verbal intrusions in immediate recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58(1), 17-22.
Garry, M., Manning, C. G., Loftus, E. F., & Sherman, S. J. (1996). Imagination inflation: imagining a childhood event inflates confidence that it occurred. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3(2), 208-214.
Garry, M., & Polascheck, D. L. L. (2000). Imagination and memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(1), 6-10.
Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook: New York, NY, US: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.(2003). xviii, 684 pp.
Heaps, C., & Nash, M. (1999). Individual differences in imagination inflation. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 6(2), 313-318.
Horselenberg, R., Merckelbach, H., & Josephs, S. (2003). Individual differences and false confessions: a conceptual replication of Kassin and Kiechel (1996). Psychology, Crime & Law, 9, 1-8.
Horselenberg, R., Merckelbach, H., Muris, P., Rassin, E., Sijsenaar, M., & Spaan, V. (2000). Imagining fictitious childhood events: the role of individual differences in imagination inflation. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 7, 128-137.
Kassin, S. M. (1997). The psychology of confession evidence. American Psychologist, 52(3), 221-233.
Kassin, S. M., & Kiechel, K. L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science, 7(3), 125-128.
Mazzoni, G. A. L., Loftus, E. F., & Kirsch, I. (2001). Changing beliefs about implausible autobiographical events: A little plausibility goes a long way. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 7(1), 51-59.
McDermott, K. B. (1996). The persistence of false memories in list recall. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 212-230.
McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L., III. (1998). Attempting to avoid illusory memories: robust false recognition of associates persists under conditions of explicit warnings and immediate testing. Journal of Memory and Language, 39, 508-520.
Payne, J. D., Nadel, L., Allen, J. B., Thomas, K. G. F., & Jacobs, W. J. (2002). The effects of experimentally induced stress on false recognition. Memory, 10, 1-6.
Roediger, H. L., III, & McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(4), 803-814.