On The Docket


Where the Truth Lies: The Phenomenon of False Confessions

By Marie Rosen

People confess to crimes they did not commit. Counterintuitive?

Yes, but it happens and it happens in every country and throughout time.

Although there are no specific statistics concerning the frequency of false con­fessions, Distinguished Professor of Psychology Saul Kassin believes they occur with some regularity and more often than you might think. He became interested in the phenomenon more than 25 years ago while studying juries and jury decision making. In every case he looked at, the jury always convicted when there was a confession. It made him aware of just how “powerful” a confession was and made him wonder, “whether confessions were as perfect, reliable and infallible as everybody thought.”

Kassin categorizes those who falsely confess into three categories: voluntary confessions, internalized false confessions, and compliant false confessions. With voluntary confes­sions, people may confess to protect someone else, because they are delusional, or to attract attention in cases of high profile crimes — like the 200 people who confessed to the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby or like John Mark Karr who confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey. Kassin notes that police do a good job at weeding out these false confessors as serious suspects and that these cases don’t result in wrongful convictions.

What concerns him are the other two types of false confessors where interrogation plays a big role. Internalized false confessions can occur when the suspect is a juvenile, mentally handicapped, grieving the death of a loved one, or because he hasn’t slept in days. When police lie to such suspects about possessing evidence, a practice that is legally permissible, the vulnerable suspect gets confused, has the impression that people do things they don’t remember and tries to form a memory about the crime even though he did not commit it.

But, the largest category of false confessions that Kassin says is of most concern to the criminal justice system is the one he calls compliant false confessions. “The confessor knows he is innocent, breaks down and gives a confession anyway because he is under stress, he‘s been in police custody for a long time, he may feel threatened, he may have had promises made or implied to him if he confesses. In other words, given the situation he is in, the suspect decides it is in his best interest to confess.” Kassin describes the situation as similar to when people change their public behavior, but privately do not change their mind. Kassin says the Central Park Jogger Case was just such a situation.

“They always knew they didn’t do it. Every one of those boys said he thought he was going to go home after confessing.” Kassin thinks, “psychologically these are the simplest to understand. Everybody has a breaking point.”

Kassin also points out there are many misconceptions when it comes to detecting when someone is lying. In fact, he says, a study to be published in Communication Research shows that people who watch the show “Lie to Me” become worse and more biased in detecting lies than people who don’t watch the show. He also believes there is no scientific evidence for tactics that look at fidgeting or eye contact. “It’s common in testimony from police who say, ‘I knew he was our guy because when I asked him about the crime he broke eye contact. He couldn’t look me in the eye.’ In fact in 60 countries, it is the one cue that everybody pays attention to.” Yet in a meta­analysis of dozens of studies involving thousands of subjects, Kassin says the correlation between eye contact or looking away and deception is zero. “Interrogators who use these cues are not going to be more accurate, they are only going to be more confident.”

His advice to interrogators is to keep an open mind. “Interrogation is, by definition, a guilt presumptive process.” The police use a two­step approach. First they interview a suspect and based on this interview they make a judgment “this guy is lying” and interrogate him or “he’s telling the truth” and send him home. “Because it is a guilt presumptive process, there is almost nothing an innocent person can do to stop it. It becomes relentless.” Kassin advises, “that the data that come in after you have formed a judgment are no less important than the data you used to form that judgment. Keeping an open mind is essential regardless of what tactics are used.” He also advises that interrogators should try to imagine that a suspect is innocent and then think in terms of how an innocent person might think.

Since both the guilty and the innocent experience stress during interrogations, looking for signs of stress is misleading. The best way, he says, to distinguish liars from truth tellers is to concentrate on their story. “It is cognitively and intellectually more difficult to lie than to tell the truth. The liars have already constructed something in their heads. And the truth tellers will not be that distinguishable. But if you challenge the suspect, say by asking him to tell his story in reverse chronological order — whoa! Everyone slows down a bit. But to the liars there is a whole reconstruction of the lie and it really impairs their ability to tell the story. The liars become immediately and perceptively different than the truth tellers.”

Kassin is a strong believer in videotaping interrogations to help prevent false confessions. “It is the single most important reform we can make to the system. Hundreds of jurisdictions now do it. Unanimously in jurisdictions where they do, police rave about it. They find it more to their benefit than to their detriment by a long shot.” Criminals who confessed can no longer make frivolous claims of mistreatment or coercion. Just as importantly, “when detectives go back and review the tapes, they often see that the suspect had inadvertently incriminated himself and they didn’t even realize it because they were so busy interrogating.” Based on new research data he has been collecting, Kassin thinks that judges and juries will be better adjudicators of a confession when they see the interrogation tapes, not just the final confession, as opposed to relying on second­hand accounts. “It gets at the truth and it gets it in a way that will sometimes favor the defense, but will more often favor the state. Either way it is more likely to serve justice.”

One aspect of interrogation that Kassin has criticized for years is lying about evidence, a legally allowed practice in the U.S. “In almost every single false confession case I’ve seen, the breaking point for the innocent person was the use of false evidence. ‘ We have your hair, your blood, your fingerprints.’ Innocent suspects feel trapped.” For Kassin, lying about evidence should be limited or banned outright. “I don’t have a problem with confrontation using real evidence. But, once you confront a suspect with false evidence, you’re treating the innocent just like the guilty. Once you do that, even the innocent are going to get really anxious and start looking guilty. It’s a cycle that goes nowhere good.”

Instead of lying, police often use bluffing. They don’t say, “we have your DNA.” Instead they say, “we picked up DNA and sent it to the lab.” Kassin used to think this was a good approach. But now he notes that although bluffing can prompt the guilty to confess in order to cut a better deal, it can backfire when it comes to someone who is innocent. In this instance, innocent people often believe that the evidence will exonerate them, which paradoxically makes it easier for them to confess. Kassin’s laboratory studies, soon to be published, show that using the bluff technique makes innocent people confess at a high rate. A believer in the scientific method, Kassin notes, “I could not have intuited that.” Psychologists who study false confessions share the same goals, he says, as anyone else in the criminal justice system. “We are not looking to prohibit interrogation — to prevent police from getting the confessions from criminals. The goal is to get it right.”

Shockingly, there are times when a confession even trumps irrefutable scientific physical evidence. Kassin notes that there are 19 cases on record ­— and perhaps many more — where there is a confession followed by DNA that contradicts that confession. One South Carolina case, where he was an expert witness, was featured on “Dateline” last July. Billy Wayne Cope was accused of murdering his 12­ year ­old daughter, Amanda. He had been isolated for three days and interrogated. Transcripts of the interrogation show that he denied killing his daughter 650 times. He was told he failed a lie detector test that he in fact had asked for. Ultimately, he confessed to committing the murder. The lab results, which came back several weeks later, showed that the girl was also sexually assaulted and the semen and saliva did not match Cope. Sometime after that, the DNA was run through CODIS, a computer software program that operates local, state and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence and missing persons. A match was made to a known sex offender, James Sanders, who was in the area. Yet Cope was prosecuted and convicted anyway, as a co­conspirator with Sanders, even though Sanders had no idea who Cope was. That was six years ago. Cope remains imprisoned.

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