False Confessions And Police Interrogation Research Paper

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False confessions are a serious problem in the USA criminal justice system, playing a role in about a quarter of all known wrongful convictions. False confessions can be differentiated based on whether they are voluntary or coerced and whether they are authentic or instrumental. Although the “third degree” was once common in the United States, police now rely on psychological techniques to extract confessions from criminal suspects. During interrogation, police strive to convince the suspect that the evidence against him is compelling and that admitting guilt is the only sensible course of action. When innocent suspects are subjected to psychologically powerful interrogation techniques, some will falsely confess. The vulnerabilities of individual suspects can also play a role in producing false confessions. Methods of reducing the risk of false confessions and identifying false confessions once they occur include mandatory electronic recording of interrogations, allowing expert testimony at trial, modernizing interrogation training, and reforming the interrogation process itself.


A confession can be true, false, or ambiguous in veracity. We can often be sure that a criminal confession is true because the information revealed by the confessor is strongly supported by other evidences in the case. For example, there is often medical evidence, or DNA evidence, or fingerprints, or video recordings, or computer records, or multiple, credible eyewitnesses that confirm the account of the crime provided by a suspect in the interrogation room. True confessions disclose accurate details about the crime, often lead to the discovery of new evidence (e.g., where a body is buried), and reveal facts and information only the true perpetrator would know.

False confessions involve people admitting to crimes they did not commit or misrepresenting or exaggerating their role in a crime. We can know for certain that a confession is false when DNA evidence proves that someone else committed the crime, when the account of the crime given by the confessor clearly contradicts the physical evidence in the case or when it can be shown that it was physically impossible for the confessor to have committed the crime (e.g., the suspect was in a distant location at the time of the crime). False confessions are generally not supported by other reliable evidences in the case. Usually, an account of a crime given by an innocent false confessor will not match the facts of the crime, will contain substantial errors, and will not lead police to new or missing evidence.

Some confessions are ambiguous in veracity – they can be proven neither true nor false. If there is a confession, but no other compelling evidence of guilt, it may be impossible to determine with certainty whether a confession is true. Confessions are a powerful form of incriminating evidence. Often, people who confess are convicted and sent to prison. In a study of proven false confessions, researchers found that 80 % of people who falsely confessed and pled “not guilty” were convicted at trial (Drizin and Leo 2004). Prisoners convicted of crimes may continue to proclaim their innocence from behind bars, but unless strong exonerating evidence is later uncovered or it turns out that it was physically impossible for the confessor to have committed the crime, we may never be able to verify whether a confessor is innocent or guilty.

A significant problem in distinguishing true from false confessions is created by the process of contamination. Too often, interrogators leak key details of the crime to the suspect being interrogated (Leo et al. 2009). Prior to or during the course of a long interrogation, police may disclose several critical elements of the crime (e.g., how and where the victim was killed). When a suspect later incorporates these key details into his or her confession, the result is a contaminated false confession that has the appearance of veracity. Because of the process of contamination, many proven false confessions contain details that only the actual perpetrator should know (Garrett 2008). As discussed below, without an electronic recording of the entire interrogation, it is usually impossible to assess whether contamination occurred during the interrogation process.

It is currently impossible to calculate the frequency or rate of false confessions. Police departments and state governments do not keep precise records of the number of interrogations conducted annually, nor do they keep detailed records of which confessions were proven to be true or false. Researchers have not been granted access to the records that do exist. And, of course, confessions that are ambiguous in veracity cannot be proven true or false. What we do know is that false confessions are far more frequent that was commonly supposed prior to the development of DNA identification technology. The Innocence Project, an organization that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners using DNA evidence, has found that false confessions were a critical piece of evidence in 25 % of wrongful convictions (Innocence Project 2012). It is critical to note that because the biological evidence (blood, semen, skin cells, hair, or saliva) which allows for DNA testing is only available in a minority of criminal cases, a large number of false confessions can never be proven false.

The Historical Context Of Police Interrogations

Historically, physical and psychological torture have been the basic tools of interrogators, and, in many countries, torture remains a standard interrogation technique (Costanzo et al. 2010). In the United States, at least through the early 1930s, police used the “third degree,” regularly threatening and physically abusing criminal suspects in an effort to extract confessions. As a result of the Wickersham Commission Report in 1931 (National Commission on Law Enforcement and Observance 1931), and a number of Supreme Court cases beginning with Brown v. Mississippi (1936), physical abuse of suspects began to decline in the 1930s, and, by the 1960s, such abuse appeared to be rare in the United States (Leo 2008).

In 1966, the US Supreme Court ruled that if a suspect is in police custody, police are required to issue several warnings prior to interrogation. Suspects must be informed of their right to remain silent, told that they have the right to appointed counsel and to have that counsel present during questioning. Suspects must be also be warned that anything they say can be used against them in court (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966). Somewhat surprisingly, Miranda warnings have proven to be only a weak safeguard against coercion. A large majority of suspects (estimates range from 78 to 96 %) relinquish their rights and therefore appear to consent to interrogation (Leo 2001). Police have devised several strategies to elicit waivers to the Miranda warnings. These include reading the Miranda warnings in a quick, confusing, or perfunctory manner; de-emphasizing or minimizing the significance of the Miranda warnings; obscuring the adversarial nature of the police-suspect interaction; and telling the suspect that the interrogator can help him only if he first waives his Miranda rights (Leo and White 1999).

In addition to the requirements that police “Mirandize” suspects and refrain from using physical force during interrogations, police are forbidden from making explicit threats of punishment or explicit promises of leniency.

To replace abusive practices, police developed more sophisticated psychological techniques. In 1942, Fred Inbau published the first edition of his seminal interrogation manual, Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation. With John Reid and others, Inbau revised and expanded this training manual through several revisions. The most recent edition – Criminal Interrogation and Confessions by Inbau, Reid, Buckley, and Jayne – was published in 2001. The Chicago-based firm, Reid and Associates, transformed these manuals into a training program and, in 1974, began offering seminars to police and security professionals across North America. More than a quarter million police have now been trained in the Reid technique of interrogation. Undoubtedly, many more police officers have either read the training manual or have learned Reid tactics by observing or working with other interrogators. Research confirms that these tactics are frequently used by detectives in the United States (Leo 1996; Feld 2006). The use and effects of the Reid technique will be more fully discussed in the section on “The Process and Tactics of Interrogation.”

Types Of False Confessions

Several classification schemes have been proposed to differentiate between types of false confessions. Costanzo and Leo (2008) distinguished between four types of false confessions by crossing two dimensions: instrumental or authentic and voluntary or coerced. Instrumental confessions are those offered as a means to an end to achieve some goal. The goal of a suspect may simply be to end an extremely stressful interrogation. In contrast, authentic false confessions are the result of a confessor’s genuine but false belief that he or she may have actually committed the crime. Voluntary false confessions are given freely by the confessor, while coerced false confessions are produced by psychological pressure (and occasionally physical pressure) from the interrogators.

Crossing the two dimensions yields four types of false confessions. Instrumental – coerced false confessions occur when, as a result of a lengthy or intense interrogation, suspects confess to crimes they know they did not commit. During the course of such an interrogation, the suspect becomes convinced that the only way to end the interrogation or to receive more lenient treatment is to agree with the interrogators that he or she committed a crime. This appears to be the most common type of false confession. Instrumental – voluntary false confessions occur when suspects knowingly implicate themselves in crimes they did not commit in an effort to achieve some goal. A member of a criminal gang or organization may falsely confess to a crime to protect someone higher up in the gang hierarchy. There have also been cases where parents have intentionally given false confessions to protect their children from being convicted of a crime. Indeed, people have voluntarily confessed to achieve a variety of peculiar goals – to achieve fame, to impress a girlfriend, to provide an alibi for one’s whereabouts while having an affair, or to make police look incompetent (Gudjonsson 2003). An authentic-coerced false confession occurs when, in response to a long or stressful interrogation, suspects begin to doubt their own memories and become convinced – at least temporarily – that they may have actually committed the crime. At the suggestion of the interrogators, the suspect may come to temporarily believe that he “blacked out” or “repressed” his memories of the crime. In a few exceptional cases, intensely coercive interrogations have caused innocent suspects to create false but vivid memories of crimes they did not commit (Wright 1994). Finally, an authentic – voluntary false confession occurs when someone who may or may not be a serious suspect confesses to a crime with little or no pressure from interrogators. In high-profile, well-publicized cases, police investigators sometimes receive multiple, unsolicited confessions from delusional or mentally ill people who appear to believe they have committed the crime.

Suspect Vulnerabilities To Interrogative Pressures

The majority of false confessions have come from adults with no significant mental problems. However, there are several suspect characteristics that raise the risk of false confessions. Risk factors attributable to the suspect include youth, mental impairment, personality characteristics, and temporary impairments.

Many of the best known examples of false confessions have involved juveniles or young suspects. In a large sample of proven false confessions, 63 % of innocent confessors were under the age of 25 (Drizin and Leo 2004). Juvenile suspects waive their Miranda rights at a rate about 12 % higher than adult suspects, making juveniles more vulnerable to false confessions (Grisso and Schwartz 2000). Research in developmental psychology demonstrates that children, adolescents, and even young adults differ from full adults in mental and social maturity. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that key areas of the brain such as the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex continue to develop into the early 1920s (Steinberg 2007). Compared to adults, adolescents are more impulsive, more emotionally volatile, and less able to regulate their emotions. They tend to engage in riskier behavior and tend to make decisions based on immediate rewards and punishments rather than long-term consequences. This combination of attributes puts juveniles at special risk for false confessions (Redlich 2007).

Various forms of mental impairment including low intelligence or mental retardation appear to increase the risk of false confessions. About 22 % of known false confessors could be classified as mentally retarded (Drizin and Leo 2004). Mentally retarded individuals tend to be more acquiescent, more likely to agree with illogical questions, more likely to change their answers (especially in response to positive feedback), and more easily confused by the tactics of interrogators (Finlay and Lyons 2002). People with memory impairments are likely to distrust their own recollections and are therefore more likely to believe the account of events suggested by interrogators. Similarly, mental illness can make suspects more vulnerable to false confessions. Only 10 % of suspects who falsely confessed had been previously diagnosed with some form of mental illness, but others may have suffered from an undiagnosed impairment of some kind (Drizin and Leo 2004). Like mentally retarded suspects, mentally ill suspects may suffer from an inability to foresee the long-term consequences of admissions made in the interrogation room.

People vary in their ability to resist coercion and persuasion. Although there may be several aspects of personality that make people vulnerable to false admissions (e.g., need for approval or social anxiety), two traits – high suggestibility and compliance to authority – have been specifically investigated because of their relationship to false confessions (Gudjonsson 2003). People with these traits tend to be more uncertain about answers to questions asked by interrogators, tend to be more likely to trust interrogators’ claims that they want to help, and tend to want to please interrogators. In addition to these stable personality traits, a variety of transitory states may increase the risk of false confessions. Sleep deprivation lowers our resistance to coercion, and drug or alcohol use makes us less able to evaluate the consequences of our actions. Grief and other strong emotional states have also been implicated in false confessions (Leo 2008). All of these temporary impairments create mental confusion and appear to weaken resistance to pressure.

The Process And Tactics Of Interrogation

Interrogations in the United States tend to be based on the Reid technique and have been characterized as manipulative, guilt presumptive, and confrontational. Although interrogations vary in length, content, and intensity, all are designed to induce a guilty suspect to confess. Analyses of proven false confessions and experimental research demonstrate that the tactics described below sometimes induce innocent suspects to confess to crimes they did not commit (Russano et al. 2005; Drizin and Colgan 2004).

The interrogation process is designed to break the resistance of a suspect who knows he is guilty and to persuade him that the benefits of confessing outweigh the costs. The process of interrogation in the United States can be reduced to four broad tactics (Costanzo and Leo 2008). First, there is almost complete control of the process by the interrogators. Suspects are typically interrogated in a cramped, sparsely furnished room. The physical characteristics of the room, and more importantly, the nature, length and pacing of the conversation are under the control of the interrogators. The goal is to remove the psychological comfort of familiar surroundings and to communicate to the suspect that he has lost control of the situation. This loss of control disorients the suspect, raises anxiety, and creates a desire to escape the interrogation room. The second broad tactic that sets the stage for a potent interrogation is social isolation. Whenever possible, suspects are interrogated alone. Isolation deprives the suspect of emotional support. The presence of a friend or ally might bolster the suspect’s resistance to persuasion and might lead to additional challenges to the interrogator’s version of events. The combination of control and social isolation enables interrogators to create the social reality of the situation and to reshape the decision-making process of the suspect.

The two remaining tactics, certainty of guilt and minimization of culpability, are used to convince the suspect that offering an admission of guilt is their best available option. Certainty of guilt refers to the message – communicated in a variety of ways – that the suspect committed the crime and that the evidence against him is irrefutable. Although an innocent suspect will respond to this accusation with denials, interrogators are trained to challenge, cut off, and dismiss all denials. To convince the suspect that denials are futile and that certainty of guilt is justified, police are permitted to use a variety of false evidence ploys. Put more directly, police in the United States are permitted to lie about evidence against the suspect. Examples of false evidence ploys include untrue claims that others have implicated the suspect (“eyewitnesses saw you do it,” or “others have told us you did it”) and false claims that various forms of physical evidence (fingerprints, DNA, videotape from a security camera) clearly point to the suspect as the person who committed the crime. If the suspect offers an alibi, the interrogator may attack it as inconsistent, implausible, contradicted by the evidence, or simply impossible. These ploys often cause the disoriented suspect to conclude that he bears the burden of proving his innocence, that conviction is inescapable, and that further denials are futile.

Certainty of guilt is paired with minimization of culpability to move the suspect from denial to admission. Minimization of culpability involves offering “face-saving” justifications or excuses for the crime. For example, it might be suggested to a murder suspect that he killed the victim by accident or in self-defense. It might be suggested to someone suspected of theft that the money was stolen to pay for an important family expense or suggested to someone suspected of rape that he engaged only in consensual sex. These minimizing scenarios serve to morally, psychologically, and legally justify, downplay, or excuse a suspect’s actions. Supplying a minimizing or exculpatory reason for committing a crime clearly implies that the offense may not be that serious and that anyone making a judgment about the act (e.g., a prosecutor, judge, or jury) would be likely to recommend lenient treatment. The interrogator suggests that the suspect will be charged with a less serious crime and receive a shorter prison sentence if he accepts responsibility, admits guilt, and expresses remorse (Leo et al. 2009). Conversely, continued denial will result in a more serious charge and a longer prison sentence.

The cumulative effect of these tactics is to persuade the suspect that he will almost certainly be arrested, convicted, and punished. Only by accepting a minimizing scenario can he improve his otherwise hopeless situation. Police often present an admission as an “opportunity” for the suspect to “tell his side of the story.” Further, it is often presented as a time-limited opportunity that will vanish once the interrogation ends. During the interrogation, police may misrepresent themselves as allies instead of adversaries and suggest that they can and will help the suspect minimize the consequences of his crime. The pretense that interrogators are the allies of the suspect is the foundational lie of the interrogation process. Interrogators may explicitly tell a suspect that they can help him by how they write up their report, by what they tell the prosecutor prior to charges being filed, or by how they testify before a judge or jury at trial. Interrogators may even offer to help a suspect in ways that extend beyond the criminal justice system, such as arranging for counseling or assistance from social services. Of course, the catch is that these benefits can only be realized if the suspect complies with the interrogators’ demands for an admission.

Reducing The Risk Of False Confessions

Perhaps the most important goal of research on interrogations and false confessions is to suggest “best practice” reforms that reduce the number of false confessions while increasing the number of true confessions. Scholars have proposed several such reforms based on research findings. Some reforms aim to prevent false confessions from occurring, while others increase our ability to detect false confessions after they have occurred.

The most fundamental and frequently recommended reform is to require video recording of interrogations (Kassin and Gudjonsson 2004). Electronic recording of interrogations is required in some states and common in felony cases. Mandatory recording of interrogations creates an objective, reviewable record of what occurred in the interrogation room. Jurors, judges, lawyers, and experts are able to see and hear for themselves not only what was said but also how it was said. However, to provide an optimally useful record, the interrogation must be recorded in its entirety, and both the suspect and the interrogator should be visible. Recording the entire interrogation ensures that we do not rely on partial, selective, or biased records of what transpired. To assess whether a confession is coerced or contaminated, we need to be able to examine the entire interaction that preceded a confession. The requirement that both the suspect and the interrogator be visible follows directly from research demonstrating that only an “equal-focus” camera angle allows viewers to evaluate both the suspect’s confession and the pressures exerted by interrogators (Lassiter and Geers 2004).

A second important reform is the use of social science expert testimony in cases involving a disputed interrogation or confession (Costanzo and Leo 2008). Such testimony is routinely offered in many states, and there is a substantial body of scientific research that experts can rely upon. When a disputed confession is introduced at trial, jurors will want to know why a possibly innocent person could be made to confess to a serious crime. Expert testimony can displace common misconceptions – for example, the belief that an innocent person will not falsely confess unless he is physically tortured or mentally ill. Experts educate the jury about the reality of false confessions, the psychological dynamics of the interrogation process, and the factors that increase the probability of false confessions. The purpose of expert testimony at trial is to provide an overview of relevant research and to assist the jury in making a fully informed decision about what weight to place on the defendant’s confession (Costanzo et al. 2010).

A third set of reforms focus on modifying the training of interrogators to give more emphasis to the problem of false confessions. When asked about the possibility of false confessions, a common response of those who train interrogators is, “we don’t interrogate innocent people” (Kassin 2005). In theory, police screen out innocent suspects through initial interviews and evidence gathering. In actual practice, however, the list of proven false confessions is replete with cases in which innocent suspects were subjected to highly coercive interrogation techniques based on little more than intuition or a misreading of a suspect’s behavior as suspicious or deceptive.

In particular, interrogation training needs to make far more modest claims about the ability of police to correctly interpret behavioral cues to deception. Research shows that it is extremely difficult for observers to make reliable judgments about whether or not someone is lying (Vrij 2008). Further, research indicates that many of the behavioral cues used by interrogation trainers do not differentiate liars from truth tellers. The general finding is that both untrained observers and people with relevant professional training (e.g., police and polygraph examiners) perform only slightly better than chance. Where chance accuracy is 50 %, average accuracy is only about 54 % (Bond and DePaulo 2006). Although training to improve accuracy does not reliably improve the ability to detect lies, it does have effects: after training, people are more confident about their judgments, and they list more reasons for their judgments (Costanzo 1992; Kassin and Fong 1999; Kassin et al. 2005). When faulty cues to deception are combined with overconfidence by interrogators, innocent suspects can be subjected to enormous pressure. Some will falsely confess.

The most controversial, but potentially most effective set of reforms focus on the interrogation process itself. Because interrogations culminating in proven false confessions are significantly longer than average, some researchers have suggested time limits on interrogations (e.g., no more than 3 h). Longer interrogations appear to increase the risk of false confessions by producing stress and fatigue and thus impairing a suspect’s ability and motivation to resist police pressures. Other limits on the interrogation process have been proposed. Following the lead of the United Kingdom, the United States could prohibit police use of deception and trickery in the interrogation process. Training manuals continue to insist that police lying about evidence does not produce false confessions. Yet many false confessions are the product of interrogations in which police lied to suspects, used false evidence ploys, and pretended to possess damning physical evidence against the suspect (Ofshe and Leo 1997; Drizin and Leo 2004).

As noted earlier, the dominant form of interrogation used in the United States is strongly influenced by the Reid technique, which presumes that the person being interrogated is guilty and will only respond to a confrontational and deceptive style. An alternative to this approach was developed in England and Wales in response to several high-profile false confessions that led to wrongful convictions. The PEACE model of interrogation (an acronym for Preparation and planning, Engage and explain, Account and clarification, Closure, and Evaluation) has been in use since the mid-1990s and has been adapted for use in several other countries (Gudjonsson and Pearse 2011). This alternative model emphasizes careful preparation for the interrogation and thorough knowledge of the suspect and the crime. The process of interrogation stresses finding the truth rather than obtaining a confession. Lying to suspects, false evidence ploys, manipulation, and strong pressure are avoided. All interrogations are electronically recorded. Use of the PEACE model appears to dramatically reduce the rate of false confessions while still producing a high rate of true confessions (Bull and Soukara 2010).

Careful analysis of proven false confessions and a growing body of experimental studies provide us with new insights on how interrogations go wrong. We need to translate these insights into reforms that increase the likelihood of producing true confessions while reducing the likelihood of false confessions.


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