Why would an innocent person confess to a crime?

| February 6, 2009 | 1 Reply

Today I read a 2005 Scientific American article examining why so many innocent people confess to committing crimes.

The pages of legal history reveal many tragic miscarriages of justice involving innocent men and women who were prosecuted, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to prison or to death. Opinions differ on prevalence rates, but it is clear that a disturbing number of cases have involved defendants who were convicted based only on false confessions that, at least in retrospect, could not have been true. Indeed, as in the case of the Central Park incident, disputed false confessions have convicted some people notwithstanding physical evidence to the contrary. As a result of technological advances in forensic DNA typing–which enables the review of past cases in which blood, hair, semen, skin, saliva or other biological material has been preserved–many new, high-profile wrongful convictions have surfaced in recent years, up to 157 in the U.S. alone at the time of this writing.

Typically 20 to 25 percent of DNA exonerations had false confessions in evidence. Why would an innocent person confess to a crime? A scan of the scientific literature reveals how a complex set of psychological factors comes into play . . . [One of those factors is the tendency] toward compliance or suggestibility in the face of two common interrogation tactics–the presentation of false incriminating evidence and the impression that giving a confession might bring leniency. In short, sometimes people confess because it seems like the only way out of a terrible situation.

According to this Scientific American article, the rate of confessions is surprisingly high.  In the U.S., for example, suspects

confess at a rate around 42 percent, whereas in England the figure is closer to 60 percent. In Japan, where few restraints are placed on police interrogations and where social norms favor confession as a response to the shame brought by transgression, more than 90 percent of suspects confess.

False confessions appear to be a major cause of improper convictions.  According to Project Innocence, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty “in 25% of DNA exoneration cases.”  The mission statement of Project Innocence is to:

assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. To date, 232 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 12 years in prison before exoneration and release.

Under what circumstances will do innocent suspects give false confessions?  The Scientific American article describes the commonly used “Reid technique,” which employs a

small, barely furnished, soundproof room. The purpose is to isolate the suspect, increasing his or her anxiety and desire to escape. To further heighten discomfort, the interrogator may seat the suspect in a hard, armless, straight-backed chair; keep light switches, thermostats and other control devices out of reach; and encroach on the suspect’s personal space over the course of interrogation.

This Reid operational has been carefully developed to employ nine steps to break down all protestations of innocence.  Here’s how a Reid interrogation progresses:

(1); develops “themes” that psychologically justify or excuse the crime (2); interrupts all efforts at denial and defense (3); overcomes the suspect’s factual, moral and emotional objections (4); ensures that the passive suspect does not withdraw (5); shows sympathy and understanding and urges the suspect to cooperate (6); offers a face-saving alternative construal of the alleged guilty act (7); gets the suspect to recount the details of his or her crime (8); and converts the latter statement into a full written or oral confession (9). Conceptually, this system is designed to get suspects to incriminate themselves by increasing the anxiety associated with denial, plunging the suspect into a state of despair and then minimizing the perceived consequences of confession.

During a recent lunch, a friend and I discussed a prominent St. Louis case that appears to have involved a false confession.  It is the dramatic case of George Allen, which was reported in detail by Geri Dreiling, then a reporter for the St. Louis  Riverfront Times, in an article titled “Best Evidence.”   Allen, who is African-American, made an  elaborate confession to the St. Louis Police Department.  The prosecutor relied heavily on Allen’s confession.  Allen is still sitting in prison for that 1982 murder.  It is important to consider the context of Allen’s confession, however.

The victim was a pretty Caucasian woman who was a well-liked court reporter; therefore, the murder case became a high-profile incident that cried out for the police to promptly arrest somebody.  Back in 1982, however, “DNA evidence wasn’t part of the criminal-law landscape. The first time a federal court admitted DNA evidence was 1986.”  There was no physical evidence linking Allen to the scene of the crime, which was about eight miles from his own house. This distance was critical because the murder occurred at the time of one of the biggest snowstorms in St. Louis history.  Allen, a retarded man, didn’t own a car and he had an alibi. He had no history of being violent.  Allen was arrested for this murder six weeks after the murder.  Consider also the circumstances of his arrest:

On Sunday, March 14, 1982, officers Terry James and Mark Burford were patrolling the Lafayette Square neighborhood when they spotted a black man walking down Park Avenue in the 1900 block of Park — several blocks from Bell’s apartment in what is now a row of thriving retail shops and restaurants. The officers asked the man for identification, thinking he might be Eaton.

George Allen showed the officers several pieces of paper bearing his name but nothing with his picture. The officers ran Allen’s name to see whether there were any outstanding warrants for his arrest. There was none. Nevertheless, the officers asked Allen to accompany them to the 3rd District station.

Allen asked why. Because Allen couldn’t produce any photo identification, James testified, “We would like to take him to the 3rd District station, check him out, verify his name and see if he was wanted.” If everything checked out, James testified, “I believe we said we’d cut him loose.” The officers cuffed Allen and put him in the back of the squad car.

The above events are prelude for the subsequent confession that ended up putting Allen into prison for life.

I’m writing this post for several reasons.  First, I’ve often wondered why someone would confess to a serious crime that he or she didn’t commit.  I hope these links and resources illustrate that innocent people don’t spontaneously confess to crimes, at least not most innocent people, at least not without a lot of help and encouragement from authority figures.

A second reason concerns the case of George Allen.  His case appears to be a prime candidate for review by Project Innocent.  I would like to bring more attention to the troublesome facts of his case.

A third reason is the sad fact that over the past eight years, the U.S. government has relied on confessions far more problematic than those described above in order to imprison “terrorists.”  When the authorities add torture (e.g., water-boarding, sleep deprivation or other methods of pain infliction) to the interrogation techniques set forth above, it would be more surprising if the interrogator did not (eventually) get a successful confession containing lots of incriminating “that only the actual perpetrator could know.”

Yes, guilty people confess too.  Plenty of them.   This article, though, is my urging to add an asterisk to those claims that a perpetrator “confessed.”  We shouldn’t assume a wrapped-up case of guilt based on a confession unless and until we know of all of the circumstances of that confession. We need to combine these circumstances with the physical evidence tying that person to the crime, if there is any such corroborating evidence.

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Category: Civil Rights, Communication, law and order, Military, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (1)

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  1. Kenny Celican says:

    There is an interesting comment about the mindset of the typical law enforcement official contained in Pratchett's "Feet of Clay", one that I've had corroborated by two retired police officers of my aquaintance. The comment (I'm paraphrasing here) says that investingating after a confession runs contrary to everything law enforcement officials believe about investigation.

    Which is an oversimplification, but it's a pretty clear comment on the attitudes involved; get the 'bad people' into interrogation and 'make them talk'.

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