By SHARON BEGLEY
Interrogation Methods Can Elicit Confessions From Innocent
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
"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 Interest.
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
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
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.