Would You Confess to a Crime You Didn’t Commit?

By Jack Tomlin

You’re crossing the city square. Wearing a red jacket. You’re with friends. You hear screams and gunshots erupting beside you. Turning, you see men running out from a bank with heavy sports bags. In a moment of madness, distorted reality, you find yourself entangled with one of the robbers also wearing a red jacket. Your friends flee in panic. The robber pushes you to the ground and knocks you unconscious. When you come to, you find yourself surrounded by police, asking you questions. Distressed and anxious, your answers seem messy and farcical. Nonsensical. Next, you’re being escorted to the police station as a suspect of the robbery. An eyewitness identified you as the robber wearing a red jacket.

Sitting in an empty interrogation room, save for a table and two chairs, you restlessly struggle with the lunacy of your circumstances and cling to faith. Faith that the truth will out, and with it, your innocence.

Reading this, you may think a pardon and release would be inevitable. You’d be surprised. Not only are innocent people incarcerated with daunting frequency, but many result from people falsely confessing to crimes they did not commit.

The Innocence Project in the U.S has secured the release of over 320 innocent individuals wrongly convicted of crimes. They estimate around 30% of wrongful convictions result from a false confession. In a study of juveniles in 7 European countries, Gudjonsson et al. found that of all individuals interrogated by police, 14% admitted to falsely confessing to a crime. People with mental illnesses are especially susceptible with a 2009 study by Redlich et al. concluding that of 1,249 offenders, 22% had falsely confessed.

So much for young people and those with mental illnesses, but what about less vulnerable groups? Surely you wouldn’t confess to a crime you never committed?

In a laboratory-study conducted in Maastricht, undergraduate students participated in an experiment using computers, wherein they were explicitly told not to touch a particular faulty ‘Windows’ key, or all the data from the experiment would be lost. During the test, the computer crashed and the examiner asserted they ‘saw’ the participant hit the forbidden key. They asked the undergrad to sign a ‘confession’ to the action, if they didn’t, the examiner left and returned after five minutes and asked again. Under these plausible and low-consequential circumstances, Horselenberg et al. found that 77% of participants signed the document. No one touched the forbidden key.

So, how do false confessions occur? When one isn’t voluntarily falsely confessing to save face in a gang, or protect a loved one, it comes down to two main factors. An individual’s unique vulnerability (as above) and coercive police tactics. Police use maximization tactics, such as shouting, accusing the individual of more than he is suspected of, make him seem morally reprehensible or present false evidence. Conversely, minimization tactics offering deals, empathizing with the suspect and dismissing the seriousness of the charge, in effort to decrease the anxiety associated with confessing and increase the anxiety associated with denying.

These tactics combined with a lack of sleep, food, communication with lawyers and family, lead suspects to comply and confess, wishing to leave the interrogation and go home, or to actually come to believe in their guilt.

How do we stop this? It is impossible to ascertain the total number of those wrongfully convicted through false confession and total cessation is therefore unrealistic. However, the number of wrongfully convicted can be significantly reduced by video-taping police interrogations, asking courts to review them, assessing the vulnerabilities of suspects prior to questioning, providing adequate adult supervision for juveniles and the mentally ill, and mandating the attendance of lawyers.

If you ever find yourself being questioned by police for something you didn’t do, keep quiet, ask for food and water, demand sleep and contact with a lawyer and your family.

And throw out that red jacket.

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