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False Confessions

Accoring to the Innocence Project, in about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty. Why? That is a very good question.

Many jurors view confessions to be definitive proof of guilt. For this reason, confessions are very power tools used by prosecutors in court. Seeing a confession as proof of guilt surely seems reasonable and it is hard to find fault in a jury for having that view. Our objective is to work to eliminate the errors that often lead to unreliable confessions so that jurors will be presented with accurate information.

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Case Study: Amanda Knox

Amanda Knox endured many hours of interrogation leading to her conviction for the murder of Meredith Kercher. Four years later she was declared innocent by an Italian appeals court, stating that she had absolutely no involvement in the murder.

To be clear, Amanda Knox never confessed to any crime. During her interrogation, Knox was pressured into accusing another man of the murder of Meredith Kercher. She was also pressured into stating that she was in the cottage at the time of the murder. Even though she never confessed to the murder, the results of her illegal interrogation were the same because the information obtained falsely put Knox at the scene of the crime.

Many people simply cannot understand how anyone could be pressured into making statements they knew were untrue. Amanda Knox spent four years in prison because she was pressured to do just that. In Knox’s case, she didn’t even write out the so called confession. She didn’t even speak the words. Knox signed a document typed out by her interrogators. After a long aggressive interrogation from at least twelve members of the police force, being repeatedly slapped on the back of her head and called a stupid liar, Knox signed her name on the prepared document.

There are many reasons why people end up giving a false confession. In Knox’s case, her statements were coerced. Coerced confessions unfortunately are not uncommon. Fear tactics such as direct threats, intimidation or actual physical abuse, are used to coerce suspects into falsely admitting guilt to a crime or in Knox’s case, implicating another person.

Fear tactics were used against Knox. She was told she was going to prison for 30 years. She was told she would never see her family again. Intimidation was also used. She was repeatedly slapped on the back of her head and called a stupid liar.

Coerced false confessions often involve long interrogations, which last many hours. The suspect is forced to go without food and water. The suspect is kept awake for long periods of time and gets so worn down emotionally and physically that he or she is more likely to give false statements in an attempt to end the torture. During the confession, the police suggest information to the exhausted suspect, which the suspect incorporates into the confession.

Knox was already suffering from extreme exhaustion when her final night of interrogation began. The information for the so called confession wasn’t only suggested to Knox, the police were kind enough to type out the entire statement in their own words. Knox simply needed to sign it. As soon as the pen met the paper and Knox signed her name, her life would be changed forever. Amanda Knox was a 20 year old college student visiting a foreign country. She never stood a chance against these tactics.

Why was Amanda Knox so confused?

One of the most brutal types of false confessions are coerced internalized confessions. A suspect confesses after being subjected to interrogation tactics that cause extreme anxiety and confusion. The suspect ends up actually thinking they might have committed the crime. This is very dangerous as a suspect’s memory can be altered and the suspect can no longer identify the truth. This type of confession may happen mostly if the suspect is vulnerable, such as being naive or young. In Amanda’s case, add the fact that she was also visiting a foreign country and didn’t speak fluent Italian at the time. These factors coupled with false evidence that leads the suspect to believe that they may have actually committed the crime. When suspects are confronted with false evidence of their guilt, for example being told that they already have the proof needed to convict such as DNA found at the scene of the crime, or other witness testimony, they begin questioning their memory on what really happened and about their involvement in the crime.

Steve Moore provided an excellent analysis of Knox’s Interrogation.

Michael Crowe’s Forced Confession

On January 21, 1998, 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe was found by family members lying on her bedroom floor stabbed to death.

The police investigation started with the immediate family. Each family member was interviewed separately, with increased focus put on Stephanie’s 14-year-old brother Michael. Michael was interrogated for 27 hours over 3 days. Two close friends of Michael’s were also questioned. Using inappropriate tactics on the three youths, the police were able to obtain confessions.

The methods used to obtain the confessions left much doubt about their accuracy. Police used lies, false promises, and threats, in order to persuade the boys to confess. False confession expert Richard Leo analyzed the videotaped interrogations and concluded that all three confessions were coerced. Leo described the interrogations as a form of ‘psychological torture’ that led the boys to say anything in order to make it stop.

All charges against Michael and his two friends were dropped when it became obvious that they had nothing to do with Stephanie’s murder. This case is a text book example of how not to interrogate suspects.

Richard Raymond Tuite, a homeless man found wondering around the neighborhood shortly after the murder was brought in for questioning. DNA tests proved that Stephanie’s blood was on Tuite’s clothing. In May 2004, Tuite was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 13 years in a state prison.

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Fixing the system

Fixing The System : False Confessions 

Saul Kassin

American Psychologist: Why Confessions Trump Innocence By Saul M. Kassin

On the Psychology of Confessions – Does Innocence Put Innocents at Risk? By Saul M. Kassin

The social psychology of false confessions By Saul M. Kassin and Katherine L. Kiechel

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Additional Resources

Innocence Project

Central park jogger case – Why people confess to crimes they didn’t do.

Psychology Today –  The False Confession