By Legal Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University
updated 5/1/2007 1:35:45 PM ET 2007-05-01T17:35:45

Most people can’t imagine any set of circumstances, other than perhaps torture, under which they would confess to a crime they did not commit. And even fewer can imagine ever falsely confessing to a murder, a crime that can lead to a death sentence or life without parole. Only in the past few years has the phenomenon of false confessions begun to be accepted in our society. Yet today, false confessions still occur with alarming frequency and most documented false confessions occur in murder cases.

According to the most recent data from the Innocence Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, 198 wrongfully convicted persons have been exonerated by DNA evidence. Of these 198, false confessions played a role in approximately 25 percent of the cases. Of those who have been wrongfully convicted of murders, the percentage of false confessors is even higher. Of the first 37 DNA exonerations in the U.S. for crimes involving murder, two-thirds of the suspects had been convicted at least partly based on incriminating statements or confessions made during interrogations. A study of 125 “proven false confessions” that I prepared with Professor Richard Leo in 2004 found that 81 percent of these confessions involved murders, leading us to surmise that murder suspects are most at risk of falsely confessing because it is in these cases where the pressure on the police to solve crimes is the greatest and police are most likely to employ the full range of coercive psychological interrogation tactics.

The primary cause of most false confessions is the interrogator’s use of coercive psychological interrogation techniques, techniques that are so powerful that they not only induce false confessions from the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, juveniles and other vulnerable suspects, but can lead persons with high intelligence, who are in full possession of their mental faculties, to confess to crimes they did not commit.

In order to understand why false confessions occur, therefore, one must understand what it’s like to be subjected to today’s relentless psychological interrogation techniques.

The first step in any interrogation is to isolate the suspect. This is done by shepherding the suspect into a specially designed room out of eyesight and earshot of the suspect’s family or friends. The rooms are small, cramped, and without furniture, save for a few chairs and perhaps a desk. The walls are barren; there are no phones, clocks, or other items which could distract the suspect and the interrogator from the task at hand—getting the suspect to confess.

Often after a period of rapport building, by which time the suspect should have been read his Miranda warnings (usually done in a way which discourages the suspect from invoking his rights—“we need to get these out of the way so you can tell me your side of the story”), the interrogator abruptly accuses the suspect of committing the crime.  Interrogators are trained to cut off any denials and to confront the suspect with true or false incriminating evidence (“we have your hair, your blood, your fingerprints”). These tactics are designed to destroy the suspect’s confidence that he will emerge from the interrogation without being harmed and to make the suspect think that he is powerless to bring an end to the interrogation unless he confesses.

Once the suspect is on the brink of hopelessness, the interrogator engages in tactics designed to persuade the suspect that the benefits of

confessing outweigh the costs of continued resistance and denial. Here, the interrogator makes offers to the suspect, ranging from low-end inducements like appeals to the suspect’s conscience (“the truth will set you free”) or religious beliefs (“God will forgive you”), to suggestions that the confession will be treated more favorably by those in the system with the power to determine his fate (“judges react more favorably to remorseful defendants”), to the more coercive inducements which expressly or by implication promise leniency or threaten harm.

These “minimization” tactics suggest to the suspect two scenarios of how the crime was committed, one which is premeditated or cold-blooded, the other which is morally or legally justifiable (it was an accident, self-defense, or impulsive) and urge the suspect to choose the lesser of

two evils. If a suspect claims he has no memory of the crime, the interrogator often suggests that the suspect committed the crime during a blackout or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These tactics build upon one another and are rehashed again and again throughout the interrogation until a suspect breaks down and says “I did it.”

The “I did it” statement, however, is often not enough to close a case or to gain a conviction.

Interrogators need full confessions, those which contain the intimate details of the crime and the specific crime scene facts that only the true perpetrator would know. In the best case scenario, the confession will also lead to corroborative evidence like the murder weapon or the proceeds of a robbery. Although detailed confessions, especially those

which are corroborated, are more likely to be true, the fact that a confession is detailed may simply be a function of poor or incompetent police work. Interrogators often contaminate the confession by inadvertently leaking these details to the unknowing suspect through the use of leading or suggestive questions, by showing crime scene photos to the suspect, or even by taking a suspect to the crime scene. Without a tape of the entire interrogation process, it may be impossible to tell if the details originated in the mind of the suspect or were suggested to the suspect by his interrogators.

There are good reasons juveniles (persons under age 18) may also be more vulnerable to police pressure during interrogations. Juveniles are, of course, less mature than adults and have less life experience on which to draw. They may also be more compliant, especially when pressured by adult authority figures. Juveniles are thus less equipped to cope with the pressures of accusatorial police questioning and are more likely to confess in response to interrogation tactics.  As a result, juveniles tend to be more ready to confess in response to police interrogation, especially coercive interrogation. In my study with Richard Leo, juveniles comprised approximately one-third (33%) of the 125 proven false confessions. The vast majority of juvenile false confessors (33/40) were ages fourteen to seventeen, the age range at which many alleged juvenile offenders are tried as adults.

The failure of the Carrolton County detectives to electronically record the interrogation of the 12-year-old boy who was convicted of the murder of 8-year-old Amy Yates makes it nearly impossible to analyze what led the boy to implicate himself in Yates’ death.  Nevertheless, there are some indications that the 12-year-old was overwhelmed by the police questioning.  First, police had interviewed the boy twice earlier in the day before asking him to come down to the station for a third interview.

During the two previous rounds of questioning, the boy’s parents were present; during the third round, he was left to fend for his own against two detectives. 

The officers also used the good-cop/bad-cop routine on the boy.  A kindhearted female detective gently prodded the boy to tell the truth while a gruff male detective accused the boy repeatedly of lying.  In the face of mounting pressure, the boy eventually agreed that he had seen Amy on the afternoon of her death and then told police that he had accidentally bumped into Amy when they were playing a game, watched her roll down a hill toward the creek, and then left and went back to his house.  

The claim of an accident often results from a minimization technique in which officers suggest to a suspect that the suspect did not intend to hurt the victim but the result was accidental.

Sometimes, the accident scenario is posed as an alternative to a pre-meditated murder.  Faced with the lesser of two evils, a suspect will often agree to the accident scenario, even if it is untrue, just to bring an end to the interrogation.  Children will agree to such scenarios with even less pressure than adults.  Many confess because they come to believe that by confessing they will be allowed to go home. They will say almost anything to bring an end to the interrogation, thinking that the truth will come out in court or that the authorities will later come to believe that the confession was false.

Unfortunately, as it did in the Carrollton case, the confession is the truth to the authorities and the criminal justice system does a poor job of screening out unreliable confessions.

Another sure sign that the 12-year-old’s confession was unreliable was the fact that none of the details of the confession fit the objectively knowable facts of the crime.  Amy died of strangulation, not a fall.  She was wearing different clothing than that described by the boy.

There was also no corroboration of his confession—no physical or forensic evidence linking the boy to the crime.  Nor was the boy able to lead the police to any other evidence linking him to the crime.  And as is common with false confessions given by children, the boy immediately recanted when he was reunited with his parents, telling them that he was forced to come up with the accident story and told the police the story to get them off his back.

Without a confession or even an admission to a murder and no other evidence linking the boy to the crime, the police should never have arrested the boy for the murder of Amy Yates.  Prosecutors should never have charged the boy.  And given the state of the evidence, police and prosecutors should have continued to investigate the case even after the 12-year-old gave his statement.  This became apparent when another boy, 16-year-old Chris Gossett, came forward and confessed to the crime to at least five people before talking to the police. 

A comparison of the two boys’ confessions demonstrates how easy it can be to distinguish between a true confession and a false confession.  According to Gossett, he saw Amy, told her where to park her bike and then lured Amy into the woods on a pretext, fully intending to try to have sex with her.  When she started to scream and kick, he held her down and put his hands over her mouth until she grew still.  He remembered tossing Amy’s white notebook of stories away from her and that he unbuttoned her pants after she stopped breathing.  Finally, he propped her up against a tree and left her there.  His confession matched the objectively knowable facts of the crime and contained several facts (e.g. the location of the notebook, that her jeans were unbuttoned, that she had been asphyxiated, and the location and placement of her body) that had never been made public by the police.

The tragedy of Amy Yates’s death was compounded in this case by the tragedy of a wrongful conviction of a 12-year-old boy.  There are many lessons which Carrolton County law enforcement officers can learn from this injustice, if they are only willing to listen.  First, children should never be interrogated outside the presence of their parents.  Children need their parents, or better yet, attorneys to help them understand their constitutional right to remain silent and their right to counsel, and the consequences of giving up these rights and agreeing to speak to the police.  Parents, who have a constitutional right to participate in life-altering decisions involving their children, should be given the opportunity to consult with their children before and during the interrogation process. 

Second, all interviews and interrogations of children must be electronically recorded in their entirety.  Taping only the final confession tells judges, juries, and prosecutors nothing about the reliability of the confession.  Without seeing the interrogation which preceded the confession, fact finders cannot know whether the suspect was coerced or whether the statement was given voluntarily and cannot tell whether the facts contained in the confession came from the suspect or were suggested to the suspect by his interrogators. 

Third, police officers should be very cautious when using interrogating children and should refrain, if at all possible, from such confrontational tactics as accusing the suspect of lying, interrupting a suspect’s denials, lying to a child suspect by claiming that there is evidence against the suspect which does not exist, using leading or suggestive questioning, or saying anything that might give the suspect the impression that he will be allowed to go home if  or that he will get help as opposed to punishment if he confesses. 

Finally, prosecutors should not use confessions which are uncorroborated as the basis for bringing criminal charges and judges should take a more active role, not only in determining whether a confession is voluntary or coerced, but in assessing the reliability of confession evidence before allowing it to be admitted at trial. 

Steven Drizin, a false-confessions expert, is Legal Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

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