Leading expert explains why you would falsely confess to a crime you did not commit

"False confessions don't just happen to certain types of people," said Saul Kassin, a psychology professor. "It can happen to anybody."

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By Kim Cornett and Michelle Cho

Would you confess to a crime you did not commit?

Many people would respond instantaneously with a firm, "No." But they do and often, says Saul Kassin, one of the country’s leading experts on false confessions.

“Your belief that you would never confess to a crime you didn't commit is your frame of reference for evaluating others. And it's a fair frame of reference. We do it all the time,” Kassin said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.

Kassin, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has been researching false confessions for over 30 years. He says false confessions can happen to anybody, not just certain types of people.

Kassin explained that one reason people falsely confess is because they feel set up and believe they will be prosecuted or convicted whether they confess or not. Once the suspect believes they have evidence of guilt, the interrogation shifts gears.

“What the suspect hears, even if the detective doesn't explicitly say so, is, 'Oh, they don't think this is a big deal. Well, OK, then maybe confession will result in some degree of leniency,'” Kassin said.

He explained that in the United States, it is legal for a detective to lie about evidence to a suspect.

“Imagine you're 14, 16, 17 years old or, at the moment the crime happened, you were drinking. And imagine now you're being told that your fingerprints were found at the ... at the scene, or imagine you're told that the victim's blood was found on your pillow, or that you failed a polygraph, which is infallible,” he said.

“Now, you may actually start to wonder, 'Wait a second. You claim you have this objective evidence and the police can't lie, right?' is what the average person thinks.”

He said a typical interrogation can take up to four hours, but false confessions cases have had interrogations of up to 20 hours.

“People have a breaking point. And time breaks people down,” Kassin said. “Time brings with it fatigue, a deprivation of certain need states. Particularly important is that people being interrogated are sitting alone in a room; no friends, no family, not a lawyer present.”

Central Park Five

In 1989, a white female jogger was beaten and raped in New York’s Central Park. Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana were arrested and quickly branded the “Central Park Five."

They were all convicted on what they always maintained were coerced confessions, depicted in the Netflix series, “When They See Us." To them, the confession was a lifeline.

“You're talking about seasoned, veteran detectives 20-years-plus on the force. They do this in their sleep. That playing field is already unleveled, for kids," Santana told Holt. "So you walk into that situation not knowing anything. The unknown. And it's all about the pressure. They apply so much pressure on you.

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“It's estimated that we was in those rooms for 15 to 30 hours. No sleep. No food. Nothing. Just pressure. Large amounts of pressure.”

McCray said he started to lie because his father told him to tell the officers what they wanted to hear.

Richardson was just 14 years old at the time.

“I was wondering how I could get out of this. And I thought, 'Well, as they was coaching me and telling me the names of people it was like a multiple choice, an exam. Antron, Raymond, pick one.' I put it down, so he was coaching me with that,” Richardson said. “So you really don't know until you really in that, in that predicament. And all we wanted to do at 14 was go home. I just wanted to get home.”

Kassin said: "The average person scratches his or her head. Wait, you thought you were gonna confess to involvement in a rape and go home? What were you thinking? What they were thinking has a lot to do with the minimization tactics that were used in the interrogation.

“Take a close look at the jogger confessions. Nobody confesses to raping the jogger. They implicate the others. Each of them pitches himself as having played a minor role; others raped her. That's different than getting five confessions. They didn't confess. Each one actually saw his own confession as a ticket home.”

Although there was no DNA evidence linking the five defendants to the crime, two juries convicted them based on the false confessions.

“Confession evidence has always been considered something of a gold standard,” Kassin said. “Legal scholars in the U.S. have recognized that when you have a confession, you're basically gonna get a conviction at trial.”

Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after another man confessed to the crime. They all served between six to 13 years in prison.

Jeffrey Deskovic

According to the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing, 28 percent of exonerations obtained from using DNA evidence involved defendants who made false confessions. Of those, 49 percent were 21 years old or younger at the time of their arrest.

Jeffrey Deskovic was just 16 years old when he was arrested for the 1989 rape and murder of his classmate Angela Correa in Westchester County, New York.

He was interrogated for six to seven hours.

“Being desperate to get outta there, I latched onto that false promise, and I made up a story based on the information which they gave me in the course of the interrogation,” Deskovic told NBC News.

His interrogation and confession were not videotaped.

Despite the lack of physical evidence connecting Deskovic to Correa's rape or murder, he was convicted in 1991. He spent 16 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2006 based on a re-examination of DNA evidence, after the Innocence Project took on his case. His conviction was later overturned.

A 2007 report from the Westchester County District Attorney on Deskovic’s case said adolescents are “at a higher risk for confessing to a crime they did not commit."

The report also noted “the police failure to create a complete taped record of their interrogations of Deskovic was likely a major cause of this erroneous conviction.”

Deskovic recently graduated from Pace Law School in May and is working to become a lawyer. Through his foundation, The Deskovic Foundation, he works to help the wrongfully convicted.

Kassin said that if that all interrogations are videotaped from start to finish, the number of false confessions would be reduced.

“Everything in in basic psychology and research suggests that if there is a camera present in the room, detectives will likely dial down the use of certain tactics that they know judges and juries won't like when they see it,” he said.

He said a complete video recording would offer to judges, juries and prosecutors an objective look at what was said and done.

“I'm convinced that the presence of a video camera will make fact-finders more accurate fact-finders,” Kassin said. “The idea that I'd know a false confession if I saw one? No. Not if you're only watching the confession. But you stand a better chance if you're watching the whole process before that confession is taken.”