False Confessions

One of the most compelling forms of evidence in a criminal trial is a confession of the crime by the accused. This evidence is so compelling because most people believe it highly unlikely that someone would confess to a crime they did not commit, especially a serious crime. Although intuitively appealing, this common belief has been disproved by many recent studies. Not only do individuals falsely confess, they sometimes do so without outside justification—such as the desire to protect someone else—and they confess to very serious crimes, including capital murder. In fact, false confessions are one of the three most commonly cited factors in death penalty cases that have been reversed or resulted in an executive pardon due to the defendant’s actual innocence.

There are many reasons why an individual might falsely confess. Some individuals falsely confess due to outside justifications such as protecting another individual. However, mentally coercive police interrogation techniques are the more common cause of false confessions in cases that have been overturned. Although these techniques are designed to elicit genuine confessions, they also risk encouraging false confessions, especially when dealing with juveniles or mentally challenged suspects. Typical techniques include isolating the suspect from others and encouraging a confession through the use of deception and mental coercion. In response to these interrogation techniques, some individuals actually come to believe that they committed the crime. Others succumb to the pressure of the interrogation and falsely confess due to a highly suggestible or compliant mental state. Although the mentally retarded and individuals with subaverage intelligence are most at risk for falsely confessing, most individuals who have been proven to have falsely confessed are of average intelligence.

Most of the false conviction studies that have been conducted have focused mainly or exclusively on individuals who have falsely confessed to murder and been sentenced to death. Some of these individuals have come within minutes of execution before receiving reprieves that eventually led to their exoneration. As a result of these and other jurisdictional studies, a handful of states—including Alaska, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—have instituted legislative or judicial requirements that police interrogation sessions be videotaped as a prerequisite to admission of statements at trial. Some jurisdictions apply the requirement only to juvenile cases or interrogation of murder suspects, but others apply it to all criminal cases, and some police departments require videotaping as a matter in internal policy. Although not generally required, the most effective use of videotaping is to record the entire interrogation along with the statement itself. This technique provides an objective and complete record for courts and attorneys to review to determine the reliability of statements.

False confessions have many negative effects— most notably on the wrongfully convicted defendant— but also on the victims of the crime and society, who are still vulnerable to the commission of further criminal acts by the actual perpetrator, and the criminal justice system itself, which relies on the faith of the people for its effectiveness.

JUDITH M. BARGER

References and Further Reading

  • Drizin, Steven A., and Richard A. Leo, The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World, North Carolina Law Review 82 (2004): 891.
  • Gross, Samuel R., et al., Exonerations in the United States, 1989 through 2003, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 95 (2005): 523.
  • White, Welsh, False Confessions and the Constitution: Safeguards Against Untrustworthy Confessions, Harvard C. R.-C.L. Law Review 32 (1997): 105.
  • Wisconsin v. Jerrell, 699 N.W.2d 110 (2005).

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Minnesota v. Scales, 518 N.W.2d 587 (1994)
  • Stephan v. Alaska, 711 P.2d 1156 (1985)

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