False Confessions are Nothing New
False confessions are nothing new and have resulted in scores of convictions across the U.S. How does this happen? The answer is complex and the phenomena of false confessions is explained by the vast differences in socioeconomic differences.
People who give false confessions are generally undereducated, mentally ill, poor or otherwise susceptible to persuasion. In addition, average citizens simply cannot understand what it is like to be investigated, arrested and/or interrogated. Together, socioeconomic factors and the intense pressure of interrogation explain how and why false confessions occur.
The Intense Pressure of Police Interrogation
Police interrogation is probably one of the most difficult things to explain to a lay person. Movies and television shows do nothing to truly explain just how intense police interrogation really is from a mental and psychological standpoint. In the movies or on TV, police interrogations literally last 2-5 minutes. That’s only a fraction of time compared to how long interrogations actually last, which is hours on end. Try sitting handcuffed to a chair in a small room with menacing-looking officers who repeatedly tell you that you are guilty and that they have enough evidence to get a conviction. At some point, everyone is susceptible to breaking down.
Police interrogations involve a 2 step process. First, officers will try to convince the suspect or person being interrogated that they have been caught and that there is enough evidence to support a conviction. Officers will then try to convince the individual that the only way out is to confess to the crime.
How Does Someone Confess to a Crime They Didn’t Commit?
There are two kinds of false confessions, a false confession in which the suspect actually lies and a false confession given by a suspect who actually believes they are guilty, when they in fact are not guilty.
False Confessions – The Suspect Lies
In these types of false confessions, the suspect is basically coerced into confessing. The individual lies in order to literally put an end to the interrogation. Individuals with mental disabilities and those who are mentally ill may be inclined to give false confessions.
Just this past year in a murder trial in Philadelphia, the defendant confessed to the crimes and was ultimately found not guilty by the jury. The jury ultimately believed that his confession was false. See Commonwealth v. Pinkney.
False Confessions – The Suspect Believes Their Guilt
In these types of false confessions, the suspect believes in their own guilt. Basically, the individual believes that they committed the crime but has no memory of it.
Consider another high profile case of Kevin Fox, a young father who falsely confessed to the rape and murder of his young daughter. Physical evidence later showed that the father had nothing to do with the crime. He spent 8 months in prison after his false confession; he’d been led to believe that he could have committed the crime without remembering/knowing he’d done it. The perpetrator was a neighbor who left physical evidence at the scene, including DNA evidence which clearly exonerated the young father.
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