FALSE CONFESSIONS BY ADULTS
Police use of bright lights, rubber hoses and other physical methods to
extract confessions was once common in North America. Court decisions
since that time have rendered such confessions inadmissible, leading to
the abandonment of these techniques. Trial judges have even rejected
confessions obtained through threats of long sentences or promises of short
sentences. Police now generally use psychological pressures, which may
well be more effective.
Some modern methods include:
||Feigned sympathy and friendship.
||Appeals to God and religion.
||Blaming the victim or an accomplice.
||Placing the suspect in a soundproof, starkly furnished room.
||Approaching the suspect too closely for comfort.
||Overstating or understating the seriousness of the offense and the
magnitude of the charges.
||Presenting exaggerated claims about the evidence.
||Falsely claiming that another person has already confessed and
||Other forms of trickery and deception.
||Wearing a person down by a very long interview session. 1
The result is that some individuals confess to crimes they did not do.
Sometimes they even grow to believe that they are guilty.
Some police departments use a 1985 book, "Criminal
Interrogation and Confessions," as a reference. It recommends
isolating the suspect, and involving the suspect in possible crime
scenarios. "An innocent person will remain steadfast in denying
Saul M. Kassin, professor of Psychology at Williams College is a
leading researcher into false confessions. He divides them into three
- Voluntary, involving no external pressure.
- "Coerced-compliant" in which the person realizes he is not
guilty but confesses to the crime to receive a promised reward or
avoid an adverse penalty.
"Coerced-internalized" in which an innocent suspect is
induced to believe he or she is guilty. 12
Police and courts often doubt that the second two cases actually exist.
Dr. Kassin and his student, Catherine L. Kiechel, designed a lab
experiment demonstrating how innocent people can be led to a false
confession, to the point that some may even become convinced they are
guilty. In the study, college students were asked to type letters on a
keyboard as a researcher pronounced them. Some researchers read out the
letters quickly (67 per minute), others slowly (47 per minute). The
subjects were warned to not touch the ALT key, because a bug in the
testing program would cause the computer to crash and lose all the data.
One minute into the test, the computer was manually caused to crash. In
half the tests, the researchers said they had actually seen the subject
depressing the ALT key. At first, the subjects correctly denied hitting
the key. The researcher then hand-wrote a confession and asked the
subjects to sign it. The penalty would be an angry telephone call to the
subject by Dr. Kassin. One hundred per cent of the subjects who had typed
the letters quickly, and who were told by the researcher that they had
been observed hitting the ALT key, signed the confession; 65% of the
subjects believed they were guilty; 35% even confabulated non-existent
details to fit their beliefs. Overall, 69% signed the note and 28%
believed they were actually guilty. 1,3
Suspects who are developmentally handicapped
Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley
has researched the effects of interrogation techniques. He said, "Mentally
retarded people get through life by being accommodating whenever there is
a disagreement. They've learned that they are often wrong; for them,
agreeing is a way of surviving." Obtaining a confession from such
people "is like taking candy from a baby." Florida lawyer
Delores Norley has trained police in 30 states to handle interviews of
developmentally handicapped suspects. She says they often have "an
excessive desire to please ... This is especially true with authority
figures." She and her colleagues are currently aware of some 100
cases of possibly false confessions by impaired defendants.
Pioneering studies by Gisli Gudjonsson:
Gisli Gudjonsson is a professor of forensic psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London,
England. He and Dr James MacKeith conducted pioneering research into how
people might be induced to make "confessions" to crimes they hadn't
committed. According to the Guardian newspaper:
"He identified a range of important emotional and
psychological factors, such as compliance, suggestibility and
personality disorders that had been ignored through the entire history
of criminal justice. This led him to produce the Gudjonsson
Suggestibility Scales (GSS), which are now used throughout the world
when the issue of false confessions arises."
"It used to be thought that people only made false confessions if they
were mentally defective or suffering from severe learning disabilities. But that's not the case. Most of
the vulnerabilities have nothing to do with intelligence. In the cases
I looked at, the people were pretty ordinary and their intellectual
functioning wasn't of much relevance. Personality characteristics are
The studies have produced major changes in
police behavior. Gudjonsson said:
"There has been a
tremendous improvement both in terms of the
interviewing, which is less aggressive and coercive, and in terms of
the quality of information obtained....The Metropolitan Police came to me for advice. They've accepted that
mistakes have been made, and have wanted to learn from those mistakes.
I think that's quite remarkable - you don't see that in any other
country....[Police in] Some
countries say, 'We never have a false confession - that's just
something that happens in England.' A police officer in Canada said to
me, 'We're 100% sure in (this) confession. We know when people are
telling the truth or not, we can tell by the non-verbal signs.' In
that case, DNA evidence completely exonerated the man and pointed to
Some examples of apparently false confessions
||Illinois: In 1979, Girvies Davis, aged 20, confessed to 11 crimes, including
the murder of an 89-year-old man in Belleville, IL. Davis was an
alcoholic with a childhood history of brain damage and suicide
attempts. During his teen years, he was diagnosed with organic brain
dysfunction, which doctors believe was induced by a bicycle accident
when he was 10 years old. They believe he fell within the "borderline
range of intelligence." There was absolutely no evidence
linking him to the murder other than the confession. Police say he
freely gave the confession; Davis says it was coerced. The State of
Illinois executed him on 1995-MAY-18.|
||Arkansas: The confession of Jessie Misskelley, Jr., convicted of participating
in the sex-murders of three boys in West
Memphis, AR, in 1993, may well be false. He was 17 years old at
the time of the confession, and has an IQ of 72 (vs. a normal value of
100). After the trial was concluded, an independent investigator
studied autopsy photographs. He found images of bite marks on the face of one of the murder
victims. Their pattern did not match
Misskelley's teeth or those of the other two teenagers who were also
convicted of the murders. One of the latter is on death row. Although
a polygraph test indicated his innocence, Misskelley was interrogated
for over 5 hours. He retracted his confession afterwards, claiming
that he had caved in under police pressure. He pleaded not guilty at
trial. An expert testified at the trial that Jessie was a prime
candidate for a false confession because of his young age and low IQ.
The Arkansas Supreme Court, in its ruling in this Memphis case,
outlined some of its criteria for determining the accuracy of the
||The "voluntariness" is judged on the basis of many
factors, including: "the age, education and intelligence
of the accused, the advice or lack of advice on constitutional
rights, the length of detention, the repeated or prolonged nature
of questioning, or the use of mental or physical punishment."
||Confessions while in custody are assumed to be involuntary, and
the burden is on the State to show that the confession was
||"A confession obtained through a false promise of reward
or leniency is invalid"
||"Youth alone [is] not sufficient to exclude confession."
||A "low intelligence quotient alone will not render
||"Between the first time appellant was advised of his
rights and the time he gave his first statement, a period of just
over four hours elapsed, which was not undue..."
||"The police may use some psychological tactics in
eliciting a custodial statement."
||"...where a person under age eighteen is charged as an
adult in circuit court, failure to obtain a parent's signature on
a waiver form does not render a confession inadmissible."
||Events from California to Massachusetts: A series of large-scale, Multi-Victim/Multi-Offender
(MVMO) cases surfaced in North America, starting in the early 1980's.
Prosecutors alleged that numerous sexual and ritual
abuse events occurred at pre-schools, church Sunday schools, and
similar agencies. In those days, child psychologists, police
investigators, and others were largely unaware of how easy it is to
coax children to disclose details of sexual and ritual abuse events
that never happened. All that is required is repeated,
direct questioning by an adult. There are many examples of
disclosures of non-existent abuse, leading to a community panic, mass
trials of innocent adults, and eventual multi-million dollar lawsuits
by those same adults. Bakersfield and Manhattan
Beach, CA were among the first places to spawn child abuse hoaxes.
When we wrote the above paragraph in the year 2000, we appended a comment: "With luck, the recent sex ring hoax at
Wenatchee, WA will be the last." It wasn't. A case arose in the
Island of Lewis, Scotland during 2003. It turned out
to be a hoax as well.
Kathryn Lyon, lawyer and author of the Wenatchee Report, interviewed
many of the defendants. 9 This report became the
basis of a book. She found that most of the
accused adults agreed in their descriptions of police interview
methods. They described long interrogations involving "deprivation
of sleep, food or breaks, repeated, leading questions, use of threats,
intimidation, and promises or incentives ... use of profanity,
derision and name-calling, officers' unyielding expectation of guilt
and refusal to accept contradictory information." She noted
that some of the defendants' "confessions" were written with
a "vocabulary or language patterns far beyond the mental
capacity of the defendant."
About 45 adults, mostly women, were charged with offenses related to a
number of interconnected sex rings. "All of the adults accused
of being part of 'The Circle' were poor; many are illiterate, and some
have been tested as significantly below average intelligence."
Many were unable to afford to hire a competent lawyer. Some were named
in thousands of first-degree rape counts of a child. It would appear
that many took an Alford plea to avoid a certain guilty verdict at
trial and many decades of imprisonment. In an Alford plea, the
defendant maintains his/her innocence, but acknowledges he/she would
probably be found guilty if there were a trial. It is the only
practical option in many cases where a defendant cannot finance an
effective defense. Most of the defendants who could afford a private
lawyer were not found guilty at their trials. All of the defendants who
were too poor to hire a lawyer were found guilty, and sentenced to
long prison terms. Many of the convicted have been freed by higher
courts, largely through the efforts of The Innocence Project
Northwest, a group of volunteer University of Washington law
students, investigators and Seattle lawyers.
2002-DEC-10: NY: Central Park Jogger Case unravels:
The National Public Radio program "Talk of the Nation"
dealt in part with this case. The District Attorney for New York City
now wants to throw out all of the convictions in this case. Five men
have already been found guilty and have served time for the crime. Some
confessed. But recently another individual confessed to the crime and
his confession was given credibility by DNA evidence. Now
questions are being raised about how police produce confessions. Neal
Conan hosted a discussion which asked why someone would confess to a
crime they didn't commit. An audio version of the discussion is online.
Some books on false confessions:
||Donald S. Connery, "Convicting the
Innocent: The Story of a Murder," a False Confession, and the Struggle
to Free a 'Wrong Man'," Brookline Books, (1996). The book
describes what happens in police interrogation. It is the story of an innocent
person who was sent to death row
because it was easier to accuse them than to catch the actual criminal. It
shows that some suspects are assumed guilty unless they can be proven innocent.
You can read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com's online book store.
||Dan Dane, "Fireflies in the Delta," (2000) Author Dan
Dane has worked as a U.S.
criminal defense lawyer, JAG officer, bank lawyer, District Attorney and
judge. He has written this true-to-life novel which describes a false
confession extracted from an inmate with a low IQ. The book was written to
expose how police obtain false confessions. The story is fictional, but
its descriptions of police methods are accurate. Amazon.com's review
of the book states: "A newly elected, idealistic District
Attorney refuses to use the false confession as the resolution of the
case. This unwittingly draws him into a power struggle with the
diabolical deputy and those in the criminal justice system aligned
with him. The resolution of this struggle may be too true to life for
many readers." Read
reviews or order this book
||Gisli Gudjonsson, "The Psychology of Interrogations and
Confessions," Wiley. This book, brings together all the key research and
evidence in the area of false confessions. Read
reviews or order this book
||Kathryn Lyon, "Witch Hunt : A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice"
Avon, 1998-MAR. A reviewer at
Amazon.com wrote: "Kathy Lyon's book "Witch Hunt" has
ripped open a festering lesion of Washington state abuses. This boil of
corruption in the Washington state child care agency is rampant county by
county, the same practiced behavior of social workers and detectives,
therapist, judges, and state appointed attorney's involved in the Wenatchee
cases are a practiced pattern in every county in the State." Read reviews or
order this book
||Lawrence Wright, "Remembering Satan: A tragic case of
recovered memory," Vintage Books (1995):
Perhaps the most famous recent case is Paul
Ingram's, a police officer from Olympia, WA. He was subjected to
23 interrogations over five months of hypnotism and coercion by
his church minister to confess, provided with graphic crime details,
and influenced by a police psychologist who told him that sex
offenders often repress memories of their crimes.
Ingram eventually confessed to sexually assaulting his two daughters,
as well as to killing infants in Satanic rituals. No hard evidence was
ever produced. Some evidence even proved that some of the accusations
were false. The case became famous because it was the first instance of
an individual confessing to Satanic Ritual Abuse
in the U. S. Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert in interrogation techniques, told Ingram that his children disclosed that he
had forced them to engage in sexual activities with each other. The
statement was false. Dr. Ofshe had invented the scenario as a test, and
the children confirmed that it did not happen. Within days, Ingram
generated false memories of the non-existent event and wrote out a full,
multi-page confession. One unusual factor that facilitated Ingram's confession was
his religious belief that Satan can cause a person to perform horrendous
acts and then destroy the person's memory of the events. Ingram later
came to realize that his memories were false, and attempted to change
his plea to not guilty. This was denied. Ingram received a 20-year jail
sentence. He was imprisoned for crimes he did not commit and
which probably never happened. Read
reviews or order this book
Saul M. Kassin, "The Psychology of Confession Evidence", American
Psychologist, Vol. 52, No. 3.
Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 3rd Edition, Williams & Wilkins, 1986
Beth Azar, "Police tactics may border on coercion", APA Monitor,
American Psychological Association, 1995-OCT. Reprinted at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct95/confess.html
Decision by the Arizona Supreme Court. Available at: http://www.state.ar.us/supremecourt/opinions/1996/cr94-848.txt
Gisli H. et al, "Retracted Confessions: Legal, Psychological and Psychiatric
Aspects.", Medical Science and Law 28: 187-194.
Kassin, Samuel, and Lawrence Wrightsman, "Untrue Confessions",
magazine, 1995-MAY-22 Volume 145, No. 21 . Available at: http://pathfinder.com/@@VHkNaQYA0oxM9ueT/time/
(Link no longer available).
"Coerced Confessions: The Logic of Seemingly Irrational Action." Cultic
Studies Journal 6:1-15.
A review of Girvies Davis' Clemency Home Page is at: http://www.pointcom.com/reviews/database/1_09_010.html
(Link no longer available).
Kathryn Lyon, "The Wenatchee Report" at: http://user.aol.com/DougHSkept/witchhunt/wen_report.txt
"The power to harm: A record of abuses in Wenatchee,"
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998-FEB at: http://www.seattle-pi.com/powertoharm
"The Aftermath" (Update Ref. 10), Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, 1998-FEB at: http://www.seattle-pi.com/powertoharm/aftermath.html
"Saul M. Kassin," at: http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/kassin.html
Bob Woffinden, "Confessions of a forensic psychologist: Why do
people admit to crimes they never committed?,"
The Guardian (London, England) 2002-DEC-17, Page16.
"Central Park Jogger Case," NPR archives, 2002-DEC-10, at:
Copyright © 1997to 2006 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-SEP-05
Author: B.A. Robinson