Remember when you were a child, and you told a lie or said something you did not mean? Perhaps you lied to help a friend cover up a mistake. Then, maybe you were pressured by an adult to fess up and you agreed to do so, simply so that they would leave you alone. But then got you punished for the act in question and your friend got away free. Not knowing it at the time, you committed a false confession. This is something that many of us have done at some time or another in our lives: taking the blame for someone or saying something that happened that we knew was not true. However, when an adult administers a false confession in the court of law, it can have substantial consequences.
The factors, as stated by the Innocence Project, that can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation include:
• diminished capacity
• mental impairment
• ignorance of the law
• fear of violence
• the actual infliction of harm
• the threat of a harsh sentence
• misunderstanding the situation
In the case of juveniles, confessions or admissions are often unreliable because children can be easily manipulated and are not always fully aware of the totality of the situation at hand.
When it comes to false confessions from people with mental disabilities, their confessions can be misleading because these statements are often given for the purposes of agreeing with or accommodating the authority figure. In addition, many law enforcement interrogators are not trained to question such subjects.
False convictions occur more regularly than the public may be aware. According to Falseconfessions.org, an advocate for false confession reform, “In Bedau and Radelet’s 1987 study, false confessions were the third leading cause of wrongful conviction; In Warden’s 2003 study they were the single leading cause.” Even more frightening when they state, “Police-induced false confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions.” This begs the question of why and how police are getting these false convictions.
Understanding the why police may force a false conviction is somewhat straightforward. There is often pressure within the task force to quickly find the criminal and bring them to justice. With all eyes on police, it is understandable that the department will want to look competent in the public eye. Furthermore, police and law enforcement in general are under tremendous duress to constantly decrease crime rates. This could be one reason that, according to Prison Legal News, “Federal prisons were 39% over capacity as of September 2011. Further, the report predicted that overcrowding would climb to more than 45% above the BOP’s maximum capacity by 2018.” Regardless of the outcome on the prison system, the pressure to convict is real, but it does not mean it is just.
As to the issue of how police are eliciting false confessions, they have a repertoire of tactics that they implement. For example, the investigators may bluff by stating that they have evidence that would make the suspect guilty. According to a 2010 article from The American Psychology Association, “interrogators often use the bluff tactic, whereby they pretend to have evidence to be tested without further claiming that it necessarily implicates the suspect.” This article discusses studies that were done in a lab to provide support for this statement. If you watch any cop show, you have seen this technique used and it surely is quite effective. Other techniques include long interrogations as in the care of Damon Thibodeaux or the falsification of evidence. The good news, according to the Innocence Project, is that more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.” People who fell victim for this tactics are getting freed.
False confessions and admissions are common and they happen for many reasons, ranging from duress to mental illness. Unfortunately, false confessions can result in a person imprisoned or facing death. Also, there are tactics that police will use to force false confessions and admissions. However, many who do fall for these get exonerated, but this does not provide an excuse for the way the confession may have occurred, and it does not return to the person their pre false confession life – it simply gives them a second chance at life, even though their first chance should not have been taken away to begin with. As adults, we confess to things we did not do or say misleading information all too often. In our everyday lives, it may give someone a bad reputation, cost a friendship, or keep an unhappy marriage going for years longer than necessary. However, when a false confession occurs in a crime case, it is a life altering experience that may very well scar the wrongfully convicted person in immeasurable ways.
To learn more about stories of victims of false confessions, reforms, or get more facts, visit the Innocence project website. The site has a video that is captivating in explaining this phenomenon and people it has affected.