Interrogation Methods Can Elicit Confessions From Innocent People
April 15, 2005; Page B1

For cops, this was as good as it gets: The 14-year-old boy they
arrested in the February murder of a man who found an intruder in his
parked car in Rockford, Ill., didn't just confess. After the police
took him from his home around midnight and isolated and interrogated
him until dawn, he also re-enacted the crime for them, describing the
inside of the car and relating how he had broken into it, struggled
with the victim and shot him in the chest.

There was only one problem. After the boy had spent two weeks in
detention, police, acting on a tip, discovered the real shooter was a

Scientists who study false confessions aren't surprised. During the
hours-long interrogation, says Shelton Green, the boy's public
defender, detectives called the boy a liar, told him he would go to
prison for 10 to 15 years if he didn't admit his role, suggested he
shot the man in self-defense and promised to help him if he would own

"This was almost a perfect storm of criminal injustice," says
Rockford prosecutor Paul Logli, president-elect of the National
District Attorneys Association.

Suspects confess for a number of reasons. "But the most important,"
says Saul M. Kassin, professor of psychology at Williams College,
Williamstown, Mass., "is that standard interrogation techniques are
masterfully designed to leave people with almost no rational choice
but to confess."

Typically, detectives isolate the suspect, heighten his stress and
let him know that denial is futile. Crucially, says Prof. Kassin,
they insist "we know you did it," make him think he can go home if he
confesses, and lead him to think the evidence against him is strong.
"If he thinks this is what he'll face at trial, a young suspect in
particular may think it's better to confess" and hope for leniency,
says Prof. Kassin, who testifies for defendants "two or three times a
year, in false-confession cases so egregious they break my heart."

In a review of 50 years of studies, he and Gisli H. Gudjonsson of
King's College London analyze why an innocent person would confess to
a heinous crime. Isolation, confrontation, offering (false)
incriminating evidence and implying the crime was justified can
elicit confessions from the guilty and are recommended in police
manuals. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of manufactured
evidence in interrogations.

"Interrogators are trained to suggest to suspects that their actions
were spontaneous, accidental, provoked, peer-pressured, drug-induced
or otherwise justifiable by external factors," Profs. Kassin and
Gudjonsson write in the journal Psychological Science in the Public

But what Prof. Kassin calls the "social-psychological weapons" of
interrogators are so powerful they also can extract confessions from
the innocent. Making the suspect anxious about his denials,
challenging inconsistencies (a taste of what he would face at trial)
and justifying the offense all induce confessions.

Those most likely to confess to a crime they didn't commit are
compliant, suggestible, young, mentally retarded, mentally ill, or
afraid of confrontation and conflict.

These folks aren't confessing to jaywalking. Of 125 proven false
confessions from 1971 to 2002, 81% were for murder and 8% for rape.
Although it is impossible to know how many confessions are false, of
the first 130 exonerations that the New York-based Innocence Project
obtained via DNA evidence, 35 involved people convicted after false
confessions. People have confessed to murdering someone who is still
alive, and to crimes committed when they were demonstrably somewhere

Some innocent people even come to believe they are guilty. In one
infamous case, Michael Crowe, 14, was suspected in the 1998 stabbing
death of his sister in Escondido, Calif. Through hours of questioning
(with neither a lawyer nor parent present), he denied any involvement.

But after detectives told Michael (falsely) that his hair was found
in his dead sister's hand, that her blood was in his bedroom and that
he had failed a polygraph, he came to believe he had a split
personality and confessed. Last year, a drifter who was seen in the
neighborhood on the night of the murder and had the girl's blood on
his clothing was convicted in the killing.

Police and prosecutors are starting to express concern about false
confessions. "There are interrogation techniques that can lead to
this," says Mr. Logli, the Rockford prosecutor. Minnesota, Alaska,
Illinois and Maine mandate videotaping interrogations so prosecutors
and juries can judge whether cops used methods likely to elicit false
confessions. A report from Canadian prosecutors notes "hundreds of
cases where confessions have been proven false" and recommends that
investigators and prosecutors receive training about "the existence,
causes and psychology" of false confessions. Earlier this year, a
Chicago firm that trains detectives offered a course about
permissible "trickery and deceit during an interrogation."

I have written in the past about the lack of a rigorous scientific
foundation for fingerprints, eyewitness testimony, standard lineups
and other forensic techniques. Add to that list the assumption that
only the guilty confess.

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