Almost every day in breaking news we may hear that one or another crime was committed. Sometimes we even wonder how those people, shown behind the bars or in the trial, may have committed such awful crimes. Women, children, teenagers…how could they…? This question may interests not only regular people, but even experts are wondering why innocent looking people are committing the crimes like murders or raping… the conclusion is far too clear: false confession. The next question is: Why do people make false confessions? In this paper we will try to understand that.
False confession means confessing in a crime which the accused person has never committed. False confessions are often done under the pressure of the interrogator and presenting indirect evidence. Although it may seem that false confessions occur not very often, however, it is not true. They occur in case law, that is why the so-called “confession rules” were established. The main rule is that the confession must be proved by presenting direct evidence. Nevertheless, false confessions occur.
In order to understand the scheme of getting false confessions by the police, we should understand the way a confession works.
Kassin and Gudjonsson (2005) divide false confessions into three types:
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- Voluntary false confessions. These are the confessions without the police prompting them; they are given freely by the accused person. Sometimes they are aimed to diver the attention from the person who has actually committed the crime. For example, a parent may false confess or a boyfriend or girlfriend. It is done to protect and help the loved one.
- Compliant false confessions. They are given to avoid the stress during the interrogation, punishment or to reduce the term of imprisoning.
- Internalized false confessions. Those confessions are often made by mentally ill persons. They believe that they have committed the crime after the police have used some of the interrogation techniques.
In the book “Criminal Interrogation and Confession”, the author Fred E. Inbau, states that the interview with the accused person should be held in a bare room, with almost no light in it, the accused should be tete-a-tete with the interrogator. Such atmosphere influences the psychological and emotional state of the accused. It is easier to make him or her to confess in the crime he/she has never convicted. In his book, Inbau explains that during interrogation in the accused house or office, he or she will have all the advantages, because the atmosphere is familiar there, and the person feels more protected, “…his family and other friends are nearby, their presence lending moral support…” (Inbau, 2004).
Professors Saul Kassin and Gisli Gudjonsson in their article “True Crimes, False Confessions” examine the process of interrogation and distinguish nine main steps of it. These steps are (2005):
- Confronts the suspect with unwavering assertions of guilt
- Develops ‘themes’ that psychological justify or excuse the crime
- Interrupts all efforts at denial and defense
- Overcomes the suspect’s factual, moral and emotional objections
- Ensures that the passive suspect does not withdraw
- Shows sympathy and understanding and urges the suspect to cooperate
- Offers a face-saving alternative construal of the alleged guilty act
- Gets the suspect to recount the details of his or her crime
- Converts the latter statement into a full written or oral confession
From the above steps we see that, during the interview, interrogator does everything possible to make the accused one to confess. Under such a moral and emotional pressure a person with weak psychological state may confess in a crime that he or she has never even committed. Such interrogations are a powerful technique. Professor Steven Drizin (2009) explains that such tactics are used to destroy the confidence of the accused. During the interview in the police department, a person may say everything, may confess in every crime, just because of the fear to be harmed physically. The moral pressure on the accused is shown in different ways, such as: the accused conscience (“if you tell us the truth, you will get freedom”), religious belief (“you will be saved”, “God forgives you”), pointing out that during the trial the accused will be treated much better (“the judge will take into account that you have confessed”) or even the intimidation to harm physically. In such cases, the accused is willing to choose the lesser of two evils.
Sometimes the accused insists that he does not remember what happened. In such cases, the interrogator suggests that the crime was committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If the interrogator uses very convincing arguments, he may make a person to believe that he or she has committed the crime under that influence of drugs or alcohol.
All the methods described above may be used several times during the interrogation. At some point, the accused breaks down and confesses.
There is one more way to get the confession, although not everyone knows about it. This is a lie. Legally the interrogator is allowed to lie to the accused. As an example we may take the case of Peter Reilly. In 1973, Peter was accused in killing and raping a 51-year old woman, his mother. Therefore, the police found the “murderer” almost immediately. Peter Reilly was 18 years old. According to his testimony, he came home and saw his mother lying in the bedroom in a pool of blood. He was the main suspect in this case. The police interrogated Peter for twenty five hours. During the interrogation, police lied to him. They said that his lie-detector test was a lie. Under the police’s relentless pressure and no memories about committing the crime, Peter confessed. It is obvious that the police used unfair methods in order to make a teenager to confess. They have not investigated the crime scene thoroughly and did not study all the evidences. Besides, they found the suspect very fast, immediately after the murder and began to work with him just to make him confess. Such unprofessional work has damaged Peter’s life. Still, during Peter’s interrogation the police used the emotional state of the guy, whose mother was killed and raped. It is hard to imagine his thoughts and feelings that time. It is a big stress even for an adult, and not only for an 18-year old guy. In such an emotional stress and under the pressure of the interrogator he could have confessed in any crime.
Another example would be the case of Meredith Kercher. Amanda Knox was accused of murdering. She was interrogated for 5 days repeatedly. She did not remember about killing, that is why the police suggested that she was under the influence of drugs. The interrogator proved that with the fact that during the interrogation Amanda was telling different stories. Firstly, she said that she spent the night with her boyfriend watching a movie and smoking marihuana. Then, she said that she went to the bar to meet Patric Lumumba. Later, they went to Meredith’s house. According to that story, Amanda was in the kitchen while Patric was talking to Meredith. Finally, she heard Meredith screaming and ran into her room, where she found her body.
During Amanda’s interrogation, the police used all known methods. They were threating her, lying to her, stating that she was under the influence of drugs, using physical power. Thus, they were doing everything possible to make Amanda to confess. Amanda confessed, although, the evidence presented to the judge was circumstantial.
It is proved that teenagers are the most vulnerable to those techniques. They are less mature; and they can be easily threatened by the adult authorities. Juveniles cannot cope with the stress they get during the interrogation; they can hardly resist the pressure of the interrogator. According to the statistics, juveniles aged 14-17 are the majority of those who false confess.
In 1990, Martin Tankleff, 17 years old, was convicted to have killed his parents. He found his parents in pools of blood. His mother was dead, but father was alive. That very moment Martin called 911 and gave his father the first help. The police investigation focused on him as on a potential murder, because his hair was found in his mother’s fingers and his father woke from coma, just to tell the police that Martin has killed him. After having heard that, Martin thought about “black out” and confessed. In this case, police was pressuring Martin, they were using his emotions, his love to the murdered parents. However, we may try to understand the police, because Martin was the only one who was found at a crime scene, the evidence is against him. But on the other hand, the police was wrong in accusing Martin. Because if he wanted to kill parents, he would not have helped his father, he would have killed him without giving him help.
If we look closer to that case, we may find out that the police ignored some facts. Martin’s father had a bagel-store partner, who owned him half a million dollars. Therefore the evening before the murder, that partner threatened Martin’s parents. Furthermore, that partner was the last guest at the Tankleffs that night. A week after the crime, the business partner faked his own death to be able to disguise his own name and to run to California. It is obvious that the business partner should have become the main suspect in this case. This can be proved also by the testimonies of Martin and his brother-in-law. Nevertheless the police firstly interrogated Martin. Instead of letting him go with his father to the hospital and trying to find Jerry Steuerman, Martin’s father partner, they took Martin to the police office.
Another group of people, who often falsely confessed, are mentally ill and people with extremely low IQ. They may not even be threaten or pressured emotionally. Sometimes they want to please the police, and the authorities. However, after presenting evidence they believe that they have committed the crime.
In 1993, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were convicted in murdering of three persons. The point is that Jessie was mentally ill and his IQ was only 67. He was interrogated for 12 hours, without allowance to meet his parents or counsel. He confessed, therefore, the prosecutor presented no direct evidence, no motive, no connection between victims and Jessie Misskelley Jr. After such a stressful interrogation, Jessie confessed, he repeated the whole story of the crime, as it was told by the police. Later after the interrogation, when Jessie met his parents, he told that he was threatened, he was forced to confess. During the interrogation the policeman was asking only open questions, which can be answered “yes” or “no”. On the other hand, that type of questions could help Jessie to give better answers. But the truth is that such questions are asked in order to make a person to confess.
All these cases mentioned above are a good proof of the unprofessional actions of the police during the interrogation. It seems that they do everything possible to convict the innocent people, likewise, to imprison a person as fast as possible, so they could finish the case faster. According to the statistics, false confessions are leading among the wrongful convictions.
In 2010, the representatives of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, NY, have made up an experiment. The subjects were to make a task on a computer. After that, they were falsely accused to have peeping into the colleague’s test, or making a computer crash. Then every participant of the experiment was interviewed. The experimenters were using false evidence, and unreliable witnesses. In the first test, 60% of the subjects confessed in pressing the wrong button or cheating, although they did not do that. The second experiment showed almost the same results.
In conclusion, the purpose of the police and the investigators work is to protect our society from violence. As we see, they do not work properly and do not accomplish their duties; moreover, they use unfair methods to close the file. Such methods of interrogation can not only harm a person’s life, but destroy it totally.
The ground of such actions is people’s psychology. The first person found on the crime scene is almost always the main suspect. Police believe that if he or she is at a crime scene, or the first to call them, he or she should be definitely involved in the crime itself. That is the reason why they interview and blame that person and try to prove that he or she is a murder. As we have seen that police statement or decision can be proved by presenting circumstantial evidence, by moral or emotional pressure, by promising to reduce the term and so on. Police can find the way to make every person to confess, especially, teenagers or mentally ill persons.
To sum up, our government should look closely to such police actions and take some measurements. This should be done not only by the state government, but also by the federal. Some states (Alaska, Minnesota, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maryland and Nebraska) have adopted the law that the police must record the interrogation. This may help to avoid the moral pressure or threatening of the accused. But still such law is ignored not only by police, but also by the FBI.
The researches proposed the other way to solve this problem. The idea was that the police should be trained about false confessions, pretrial hearings to avoid presenting false evidence. The police should also put some time limits to the interrogation, prohibit some interrogation techniques (such as moral pressure or threatening), police should provide advanced safeguards for juveniles and mentally ill persons. From my point of view, our government should definitely take some measures, because our founding fathers were fighting for justice and not for such an unfairness that we may see today.