By: Sue Micallef
A confession is a detailed written or sometimes oral statement in which a person admits to having committed a criminal offense. Confessions are very powerful evidential tools in criminal law when it comes to trials and sure convictions. They are an irrefutable admission of guilt. Police officers see the interrogation process as a means to obtain a confession or further evidence which will prove the person’s guilt (Ainsworth, 2000). Serious factors that elicit false confessions are those that are the consequence of police interrogation methods which are designed to encourage confession by the guilty but may encourage confession by the innocent (Howitt, 2006). Not all false confessions are solicited by police. The consequence of falsely confessing can be as serious as those who give a true confession. They are at a high risk of being convicted even though they might retract their confession later on, which will probably not be accepted. “From a psychological perspective, a false confession is any detailed admission to a criminal act that the confessor did not commit” (Kassin and Gudjosson, 2004).There are various reasons why people might confess to a crime they have never committed.
Kassin (1997) classifies false confessions into three types, voluntary false confession, coerced-compliant false confession and coerced-internalized false confession: Voluntary false confessions are self incriminating statements that are offered without external pressure. There are several reasons why a person might be inclined to do this. One may do it to protect a relative or friend, especially when it has to do with juvenile offenders. Another reason is the pathological need for fame, acceptance, recognition or self punishment an example of this is the kidnapping of the baby of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, when more than 200 people confessed to the crime (Kassin, 1997).
In Coerced – Complaint false confessions suspects confess after intense interrogation pressures. This happens when the suspect confesses in order to escape of avoid more interrogation or to gain what the police have offered in return of a confession. The confession in this case is merely an act of compliance and the suspect knows that he/she is innocent but believe that by confessing they will be left alone etc. They are only aware of the short term effects of confessing and never bear in mind that this will lead to persecution and possibly incarceration. They often plead guilty as the police make them believe they will be granted penalty reductions (Kassin, 1997). An example of this is when 5 teenage boys, aged 14 to 17 after intense interrogations that lasted between 14 to 30 hours, confessed to being involved in the violent attack of a 28 year-old woman. The teenagers later said that they had simply told police officers what they wanted to hear, so they would be able to go home (Meissner and Russano, 2003).
One of the most interesting types of false confessions is the Coerced- internalized confessions. An innocent person confesses after being subjected to methods of interrogation that cause major anxiety and confusion. The suspect ends up actually thinking they might have committed the crime. This is very dangerous as a suspect’s memory of his/her actions can be altered and the suspect no longer can identify the truth. This type of confession may happen mostly is the suspect is vulnerable, for example is naïve, young, lacks intelligence coupled with false evidence that makes he/she believe that they have really committed the act (Kassin, 1997). When suspects are confronted with false evidence of their guilt, for example being told that they failed a polygraph exam or that their DNA was found at the scene of the crime, they begin questioning their memory on what really happened and about their involvement in the crime (Meissner and Russano, 2003). The most famous case involving coerced- internalized false confessions is the one involving Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff accused of the satanic ritual abuse of his daughter (Meissner and Russano, 2003). Ingram initially denied the charges, but after 5 months of repeat interrogation, hypnotism and encouragement to remember the abuse he succumbed and confessed. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, without any physical evidence to support the confession. Ingram’s memory vulnerability came from being repeatedly told by investigators and psychologists “that it would be natural for him to repress memories of his crimes, and that his memory could be recovered by praying to God for answers”. (He was a deeply religious man) (Meissner and Russano, 2003).
In 1974, members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) planted bombs in two pubs in Guildford, England. Five persons were killed and 57 injured. A month later, a bomb exploded in The King’s Arms in Woolrich, South London, killing 2 and injuring 27. The explosions caused public outrage, and some 150 detectives went to work on the case. Four of the suspects who were rounded up confessed to the crimes. They were convicted and imprisoned. Gudjonnson, joined by others looked into the case and eventually made it clear that the four had confessed to crimes they did not commit. After 15 years in prison they were acquitted and released. The above case serves as excellent examples of investigator bias. The police had to be outraged by these senseless bombings. Their rage may have made them “will to believe” was really guilty or innocent. Gudjonnson pinpointed this cloudy dilemma: “Interrogation bias may result in police officers being particularly vigilant and receptive to information that is consistent with their prior assumptions and beliefs, whilst ignoring, minimizing or distorting information that contradicts their assumptions. Information that does not support the interviewer’s hypotheses may be erroneously interpreted as lies, misunderstanding, evasiveness or defensiveness” According to Gusjonsson, the stronger the interviewer’s prior assumptions and beliefs, the greater the interrogator’s bias.
Police officers who manage to elicit a confession are rewarded with a lot of respect. Their methods of interviewing suspects are seen as a way of showing their ‘professional prowess’ (Ainsworth, 2000). Police officers are highly motivated to solve crimes and sometimes do all they can to get a confession from their suspects. Stress, pressure and threat are applied to the interrogation as they increase fear, anxiety, guilt or anger. This, according to the police will test their ‘guilty knowledge’ (Ainsworth, 2000). Gudjonsoon is critical of police deceitful techniques. He feels that “police trickery and deception deprives suspects of the opportunity of making informed and rational decisions about their right not to incriminate themselves”
Gudjosson and Clark suggested the concept of ‘interrogative suggestibility’ to explain how individuals respond differently to police questioning. ‘Interrogative suggestibility’ according to Gudjosson is how people in a closed social area accept messages during questioning and how their behaviour and response is affected by this (Conti, 1999). Gudjosson described five elements that he saw make part of the ‘interrogative suggestibility’: Closed interaction between the suspect and interrogator, questioning procedure with two or more participants, suggestive stimulus (hints, ideas), acceptance of the suggested stimulus and behavioural response to the suggestions (accepted or not). In such a situation the interrogator can manipulate trust, uncertainty and expectation to be able to alter the person’s susceptibility to suggestions (Conti, 1999).
Characteristics of the person affect the way this method works out. People with low intelligence, poor memory, low self esteem, anxiety are more prone to be suggestible and more likely to give false statements and confess to crimes they did not commit. Introverts are more capable to be conditioned easily than extroverts, and since many criminals are extroverts and designed for the typical criminal, may have an adverse effect on innocent introverts. (Conti, 1999) Stress is another important factor that interrogators use to elicit confessions. A certain amount of stress applied to a normal person might get the truth of him/her, but if it is applied to someone who is psychologically weak, it may result in a false confession (Conti, 1999).
In order to reduce the incidence of false confessions police investigators should receive special training in appropriate interviewing skills. During training, special attention should also be given to dealing with individuals with special needs such as the mentally impaired and juveniles during interrogation. Effective communication practices by investigators will lead to accuracy and accountability in the criminal justice system and hopefully reduce the number of erroneous convictions (Cassell, 1998). The judicial system needs to be more aware of the inapt approaches of eliciting confessions from suspects in custody. Interrogations should be centered on eliciting the truth rather than trying to get a confession. When questioning a potential suspect, the investigator should take on a disinterested role rather than an adversarial one (Conti, 1999). The length of interviews, are also detrimental and can account for false confessions. Long interrogations cause anxiety and stress. Limiting the amount of time interrogations can last, the time they are held, for example not when the suspect is supposed to be sleeping will reduce the phenomenon of false confessions (Conti, 1999). In order to eliminate foregone conclusions and to guarantee the accuracy and authenticity of confessions, it is vital that statements issued be substantiated by evidence. With DNA tests exonerating scores of persons wrongly accused and convicted of crimes, claims of false confessions have been vindicated.
Another idea is to videotape or audiotape all interrogations. Mandatory videotaping requirement would serve a dual purpose of protecting police agencies from claims of misconduct and safeguarding the rights of suspects (Moushey and Perry, 2006). Meissner and Russano presented the ‘best practice’ recommendations for interrogating suspects. The first is Transparency of the Interrogation process, which advocates the video taping of interrogations to be able to reduce the practice of investigators changing their use of coercive techniques to pre interrogation techniques, and that the angle of the video taping shows both the investigator and the suspect to reduce biases of third parties when deciding on the voluntariness of the confession. The second recommendation is The Identification of Suspect Vulnerabilities. Certain individuals are more susceptible than others, especially if they are children/juveniles or mentally challenged. In these cases, assistance should be provided to these individuals. The psychological and physical state of the suspects should be taken in consideration at the time of interrogation. Factors such as recent use of drugs or alcohol, lack of sleep or pain must be also considered. In this case, the interrogation should cease until the individual is in a ‘normal’ state. The third recommendation by Meissner and Russano is The Avoidance of Techniques that Increase the Likelihood of False Confessions. Certain factors are known to influence individuals to falsely confess, so interrogators are advised not to use negative influence such as suggesting memory failure theories and presenting false evidence. Interrogators according to Meissner and Russano should also try not to lengthen interrogations and not offer leniency or bargains in exchange of a confession. The final recommendation by Meissner and Russano is the Post-Interrogation Analysis of Confession Reliability suggested by Leo and Oshe (1998). An evaluation of all the fact pre interrogation and post interrogation is recommended to check that all the facts are consistent.