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FALSE CONFESSIONS BY ADULTS

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Overview:

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:

bulletFeigned sympathy and friendship.
bulletAppeals to God and religion.
bulletBlaming the victim or an accomplice.
bulletPlacing the suspect in a soundproof, starkly furnished room.
bulletApproaching the suspect too closely for comfort.
bulletOverstating or understating the seriousness of the offense and the magnitude of the charges.
bulletPresenting exaggerated claims about the evidence.
bulletFalsely claiming that another person has already confessed and implicated the suspect.
bulletOther forms of trickery and deception.
bulletWearing 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 guilt."

Saul M. Kassin, professor of Psychology at Williams College is a leading researcher into false confessions. He divides them into three categories:

  1. Voluntary, involving no external pressure.
  2. "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.
  3. "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.

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Lab experiment:

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

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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.

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Sponsored link:

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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."

Gudjonsson said:

"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 more significant."

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 someone else."

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Some examples of apparently false confessions

bulletIllinois: 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.
bulletArkansas: 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 confession:
bulletThe "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."
bulletConfessions while in custody are assumed to be involuntary, and the burden is on the State to show that the confession was voluntarily made.
bullet"A confession obtained through a false promise of reward or leniency is invalid"
bullet"Youth alone [is] not sufficient to exclude confession."
bulletA "low intelligence quotient alone will not render confession involuntary."
bullet"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..."
bullet"The police may use some psychological tactics in eliciting a custodial statement."
bullet"...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." 4
bulletEvents 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.
bullet

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. 14

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Some books on false confessions:

bulletDonald 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.
bulletDan 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
bulletGisli 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
bulletKathryn 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
bulletLawrence 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 

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References:

  1. Saul M. Kassin, "The Psychology of Confession Evidence", American Psychologist, Vol. 52, No. 3.
  2. Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 3rd Edition, Williams & Wilkins, 1986
  3. 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
  4. Decision by the Arizona Supreme Court. Available at: http://www.state.ar.us/supremecourt/opinions/1996/cr94-848.txt
  5. Gisli H. et al, "Retracted Confessions: Legal, Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects.", Medical Science and Law 28: 187-194.
  6. Kassin, Samuel, and Lawrence Wrightsman, "Untrue Confessions", TIME magazine, 1995-MAY-22 Volume 145, No. 21 . Available at: http://pathfinder.com/@@VHkNaQYA0oxM9ueT/time/ (Link no longer available).
  7. "Coerced Confessions: The Logic of Seemingly Irrational Action." Cultic Studies Journal 6:1-15.
  8. A review of Girvies Davis' Clemency Home Page is at: http://www.pointcom.com/reviews/database/1_09_010.html (Link no longer available).
  9. Kathryn Lyon, "The Wenatchee Report" at: http://user.aol.com/DougHSkept/witchhunt/wen_report.txt
  10. "The power to harm: A record of abuses in Wenatchee," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998-FEB at: http://www.seattle-pi.com/powertoharm
  11. "The Aftermath" (Update  Ref. 10), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998-FEB at: http://www.seattle-pi.com/powertoharm/aftermath.html 
  12. "Saul M. Kassin," at: http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/kassin.html 
  13. Bob Woffinden, "Confessions of a forensic psychologist: Why do people admit to crimes they never committed?," The Guardian (London, England) 2002-DEC-17, Page16.
  14. "Central Park Jogger Case," NPR archives, 2002-DEC-10, at: http://discover.npr.org/rundowns

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Copyright 1997to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-SEP-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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