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Friday, February 11, 2011

The fruit of the poisonous confession

The fruit of the poisonous confession
Posted on January 01, 2010 by Gideon

False confessions are an underrated scourge in the world of wrongful convictions. Some 15-20% of all exonerations have seen the original convictions brought about by these false confessions. The causes of false confessions have been explored before: mental acuity, extremely long interrogations, psychological manipulation and outright lies.

A new paper soon to be published by Saul Kassin – one of the leading experts on false confessions – and others does a tremendous job of highlighting the history of the law on confessions, their admissibility and challenges to these confessions in US and UK courts. The paper is notable for three reasons: 1) It lays out this legal history, the current state of the research and the history of the development of this research in detail, 2) It offers some reform proposals and most interestingly 3) it posits that a false confession can have an adverse effect on how the jury perceives the remaining evidence in a case. For all of these reasons, it is an absolute must read for all criminal defense lawyers and even those prosecutors who are driven by the interests of justice.

What I want to do in this (extremely lengthy) post is to highlight some of the important and relevant points of the paper, but let me assure you: nothing I write here will be an adequate substitute for you actually reading the paper. It is that good and that important.

The problem with confessions using our current models starts at the beginning: with police interrogation. As opposed to the UK, which uses a “fact-finding” model of interviewing suspects, US police departments for the most part use the “confession” model. The goal of most interrogations in the US is to confirm the suspicion of the interrogator by obtaining a confession. These “trained” interviewers rely essentially on hunches, which are based on flawed beliefs of body language:

Often, however, it is based on a clinical hunch formed during a preinterrogation interview in which special ‘‘behavior-provoking’’ questions are asked (e.g., ‘‘What do you think should happen to the person who committed this crime?’’) and changes are observed in aspects of the suspect’s behavior that allegedly betray lying (e.g., gaze aversion, frozen posture, and fidgety movements). Yet in laboratories all over the world, research has consistently shown that most commonsense behavioral cues are not diagnostic of truth and deception (DePaulo et al., 2003). Hence, it is not surprising as an empirical matter that laypeople on average are only 54% accurate at distinguishing truth and deception; that training does not produce reliable improvement; and that police investigators, judges, customs inspectors, and other professionals perform only slightly better, if at all—albeit with high levels of confidence (for reviews, see Bond & DePaulo, 2006; Meissner & Kassin, 2002; Vrij, 2008).

The most famous of police interrogation techniques is the Reid Nine-step:

A nine-step process then ensues in which an interrogator employs both negative and positive incentives. On one hand, the interrogator confronts the suspect with accusations of guilt, assertions that may be bolstered by evidence, real or manufactured, and refuses to accept alibis and denials. On the other hand, the interrogator offers sympathy and moral justification, introducing ‘‘themes’’ that minimize the crime and lead suspects to see confession as an expedient means of escape.

Compounding the problem of these questionable police interrogation techniques is the apparent contradiction in US courts’ treatment of confessions in the criminal justice system: on one hand, courts recognize the awesome power of a confession and yet on the other seem indifferent to the voluminous research that tends to show that most techniques are coercive and unreliable. Originally governed by the corpus delicti rule, confessions are now viewed through the lens of the “trustworthiness” rule, after Opper v. United States (for a CT discussion see State v. Hafford). This rule is intended to permit the admission of only those confessions that can be independently corroborated. However, in practice, the rule doesn’t provide the benefits it seeks to:

In practice, however, the rule has not worked to screen out false confessions. Because investigators sometimes suggest and incorporate crime details into a suspect’s confession, whether deliberately or inadvertently, many false confessions appear highly credible to the secondhand observer. Without an electronic recording of the entire interrogation process, courts are thus left to decide a swearing contest between the suspect and the detective over the source of the details contained within the confession. Moreover, the quantum of corroboration in most jurisdictions that apply the trustworthiness doctrine is very low, allowing many unreliable confessions to go before the jury (Leo et al., 2006).

In addition, while courts have taken a hard line stance condemning physically abusive tactics during interrogations, their rulings in the area of psychologically abusive tactics can be best seen as condoning the methods. The psychologically abusive tactics can be briefly categorized as: maximization and minimization, false-evidence ploy and other forms of deception (most notably not objected to in Frazier v. Cupp).

When dealing with a case that involves confessions, it is important to know the different types of false confessions and how they are induced. voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalized.

Voluntary false confessions

This is where the subject intentionally confesses to a crime he did not commit. The reasons are varied: notoriety, a breakdown in reality monitoring and most frequently to protect the real perpetrator.

Compliant false confessions

These are the types of false confessions one most frequently associates with this concept. Think of it as acquiescing to the color of authority. This is the kind of false confession that also poses the greatest problem for both defense attorneys and jurors. The prevalent thinking is that one would never confess to a crime they did not commit, no matter how persuasive the interrogator and thus if there is a confession, it must be true. Yet the psychology of the human mind stands at odds with this assumption.

Demonstrating the form of influence observed in classic studies of social influence (e.g., Asch, 1956; Milgram, 1974), this type of confession is an act of mere public compliance by a suspect who knows that he or she is innocent but bows to social pressure, often coming to believe that the short-term benefits of confession relative to denial outweigh the long-term costs. Based on a review of a number of cases, Gudjonsson (2003) identified some very specific incentives for this type of compliance—such as being allowed to sleep, eat, make a phone call, go home, or, in the case of drug addicts, feed a drug habit. The desire to bring the interview to an end and avoid additional confinement may be particularly pressing for people who are young, desperate, socially dependent, or phobic of being locked up in a police station. The pages of legal history are filled with stories of compliant false confessions.

Internalized false confessions

This is third type, where not only does the suspect confess, but also starts to believe that he or she has actually committed the crime in question.

So what causes people to falsely confess? As I mentioned above, it seems incongruous to you and me that a person who knows that he is innocent would nevertheless confess to a crime. The answer begins with basic human psychology: we are highly responsive to reinforcement and subject to the laws of conditioning and of course our behavior is influenced by our perceptions of short-term rather than long-term consequences.

A voluminous body of research has shown that people make choices that they think will maximize their well-being given the constraints they face, making the best of the situation they are in—what Herrnstein has called the ‘‘matching law’’ (Herrnstein, Rachlin, & Laibson, 1997). With respect to a suspect’s response to interrogation, studies on the discounting of rewards and costs show that people tend to be impulsive in their orientation, preferring outcomes that are immediate rather than delayed, with delayed outcomes depreciating over time in their subjective value (Rachlin, 2000).

In addition to the intrinsic factors of human psychology that lead to false confessions, one must also be on the lookout for the external circumstances that can result in these confessions. Kassin breaks them down into two parts, each with subparts: the situational risk factors and the dispositional risk factors.

Situational risk factors include interrogation time, false evidence and minimization. Interrogation time, obviously, is the length of time that a suspect is interrogated. Some fun facts: the average interrogation lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Interestingly in a 2004 study of 125 proven false confessions,

in cases in which interrogation time was recorded, that 34% lasted 6– 12 hours, that 39% lasted 12–24 hours, and that the mean was 16.3 hours.

When you get into those kinds of numbers, it’s easy to see why one should heed the red flags. Sleep deprivation can lead people to do – and say – almost anything.

False evidence

Once the interrogation has begun, the interrogator will try to convey to the suspect that resistance is futile. Basic psychology tells us that once people see an outcome as inevitable, cognitive and motivational forces conspire to lead people to accept, comply with and even endorse the outcome. Over the years, across a range of subdisciplines, basic research has revealed that misinformation renders people vulnerable to manipulation.

The forensic literature on confessions reinforces and extends this classic point, indicating that presentations of false evidence can lead people to confess to crimes they did not commit

That this tactic appears in proven false confession cases makes sense. In self-report studies, actual suspects state that the reason they confessed is that they perceived themselves to be trapped by the weight of evidence (Gudjonsson & Sigurdsson, 1999; Moston, Stephenson, & Williamson, 1992).


The most famous real-life example of such a confession is that of Marty Tankleff.


The final situational risk factor is one we’ve all seen during interrogations: the officer convinces the suspect that confessing is in his best interest. That he is the suspect’s friend and that he can help him if he just confesses; that the judge and prosecutor will understand why he committed the crime, etc. The ultimately exonerated defendants in the Central Park jogger rape case reported feeling that they would be allowed to go home if they just confessed to the crime. Two core psychological phenomena underlie this factor: us being susceptible to reinforcement and and our eschewing long-term consequences in favor of short-term benefit.

Dispositional risk factors are those that are defendant specific, such as the age and maturity level, the mental and cognitive abilities of a particular defendant and whether the defendant suffers from any psychological disorders. You can easily imagine how any of these (or all) would play a significant role in inducing false confessions.

Recent studies have shown that innocence is a factor that can lead people to falsely confess. This is the “I did nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide” problem which leads innocent people to waive the rights and speak with police, subjecting themselves to the coercive interrogation techniques

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