Dr. Steven Gaskell, forensic psychologist at Psycholegal Assessments, Inc. provides several types of comprehensive forensic psychological evaluations to the courts, as well as expert witness testimony. Dr. Gaskell performs evaluations related to the issues of Miranda Rights and whether or not an individual waived their rights knowingly, intelligently, and without police coercion and also whether there is a likelihood that a person gave a false confession. This post focuses on the research regarding police interrogations and false confessions.
Relevant Research Regarding Police Interrogation and False Confessions
According to the Innocence Project, in approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions that were overturned with DNA evidence, defendants had confessed to law enforcement officials. This highlights the importance of evaluating to the potential for false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials.
Kassin et al., (2007) explored police investigators confidence in accurately distinguishing between truthful and deceptive statements. They noted that John E. Reid and Associates“claims that trained investigators can achieve an 85% level of accuracy through the use of nonverbal cues (e.g., qualified or rehearsed responses), nonverbal cues (e.g., gaze aversion, frozen posture, slouching) and behavioral attitudes (e.g., lack of concern, anxiousness, and guardedness) presumably diagnostic of truth or deception.” Kassin, et al. noted that numerous studies have demonstrated that individuals perform no better than chance at detecting deception, that training tends to produce only small and inconsistent increments in performance, and that “experts” perform only slightly better than ordinary people, if at all. They also cited a practice where police read suspects their Miranda rights, but “then proceed to question suspects as though they had no choice in the matter, eliciting what some courts have called an ‘implicit waiver.’” They surveyed 631 police investigators. Overall, participants estimated that they were 77% accurate at truth and lie detection, that 81% of suspects waive Miranda rights, that the mean interrogation length was 1.6 hours, and that they elicit self-incriminating statements from 68% of suspects, 4.78% from innocents. 81% of participants believed interrogations should be recorded. Self-reported usage of various interrogation tactics indicated that the most commonly used tactics were “to physically isolate suspects, identify contradictions in suspects’ accounts, establish rapport, confront suspects with evidence of their guilt, and appeal to self-interests.”
Drizin & Leo (2004) reported that only a few studies have systematically aggregated, quantified, and analyzed the causal role of false confession in wrongful conviction cases. These studies report that the number of false confessions ranged from 14–25% of the total miscarriages of justices studied, thus establishing the problem of false confessions as a leading cause of the wrongful convictions of the innocent in America. Bedau and Radlet (1987) found that in 49 of 350 (14%) wrongful convictions, false confessions played a causal role. Connors, Lundregan, Miller & McEwen (1996) found that approximately 18% (5 of 28) wrongful convictions overturned on DNA evidence were attributable to false confessions. Scheck, Neufeld & Dwyer (2000) found that approximately 24% (15 of 62) of those exonerated by DNA evidence involved false confessions. The Innocence Project (2003) found that in about 25% (35/140) of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty. These findings show that confessions are not always prompted by internal knowledge or actual guilt, but are sometimes motivated by external influences.
A variety of factors can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation. Many cases have included a combination of several of these causes including: duress; coercion; intoxication; diminished capacity; mental impairment; ignorance of the law; fear of violence; the actual infliction of harm; the threat of a harsh sentence; and misunderstanding the situation. Some false confessions can be explained by the mental state of the confessor. Mentally capable adults 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. Regardless of the age, capacity or state of the confessor, what they often have in common is a decision – at some point during the interrogation process – that confessing will be more beneficial to them than continuing to maintain their innocence.
Ofshe and Leo (1997) reported that “police induced belief change during interrogation is temporary, inherently unstable, and situationally adaptive; it has never been observed to endure long after the influences and pressures of interrogation have been withdrawn.” They state a person confesses falsely because they have been “temporarily persuaded” by the tactics of the interrogation to accept responsibility for a crime they have no actual knowledge of having committed. Individuals confess in order to escape the aversive experience of interrogation even in the absence of threats or promises. They defined a coerced-compliant confession as “a statement elicited by the use of classically coercive interrogation techniques [threats and promises], and is given knowingly in order to receive leniency or escape the harshest possible punishment.” All persuaded confessions are false. The“persuaded belief change that is generated by interrogation does not necessarily persist over time or across situations; rather, it is temporary, unstable, situationally adaptive and endures only as long as the suspect accepts the interrogator’s definition of the situation.”
Reasons cited for coerced-compliant confessions are:
- Being promised to be allowed to go home after confessing
- Confessing as a means to bringing the interview to an end and coping with the demand characteristics (including the perceived pressure of the situation).
- To avoid being locked up in police custody.
- Persons who give coerced-compliant confession typically retract or withdraw confession as soon as the immediate pressures are over.
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