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A false confession is an admission of guilt for a crime for which the confessor is not responsible. False confessions can be induced through coercion or by the mental disorder or incompetency of the accused. Research demonstrates that false confessions occur on a regular basis in case law, which is one reason why jurisprudence has established a series of rules—called "confession rules"—to detect, and subsequently reject, false confessions. Plea agreements typically require the defendant to stipulate to a set of facts establishing that he/she is guilty of the offense; in the United States federal system, before entering judgment on a guilty plea, the court must determine that there is a factual basis for the plea.
- 1 Causes
- 2 Incidence
- 3 Impact
- 4 Coerced
- 4.1 Brazil
- 4.2 Canada
- 4.3 Japan
- 4.4 United Kingdom
- 4.5 United States
- 4.5.1 Brown v. Mississippi (1936)
- 4.5.2 Debra Sue Carter case (1982)
- 4.5.3 Pizza Hut murder (1988)
- 4.5.4 Central Park jogger case (1989)
- 4.5.5 Jeffrey Mark Deskovic (1990)
- 4.5.6 Juan Rivera (1992)
- 4.5.7 Gary Gauger (1993)
- 4.5.8 West Memphis Three (1993)
- 4.5.9 Norfolk Four (1997)
- 4.5.10 Michael Crowe (1998)
- 4.5.11 Corethian Bell (2000)
- 4.5.12 Kevin Fox (2004)
- 5 Political coerced
- 6 Voluntary
- 7 Fabricated jailhouse confessions
- 8 Taping interrogations and confessions
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
False confessions can be categorized into three general types, as outlined by Saul M. Kassin in an article for Current Directions in Psychological Science:
- Voluntary false confessions are those that are given freely, without police prompting. Sometimes they may be sacrificial, to divert attention from the actual person who committed the crime. For instance, a parent might confess to save their child from jail. In some cases, people have falsely confessed to having committed notorious crimes simply for the attention that they receive from such a confession. In that vein, approximately 60 people are reported to have confessed to the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the "Black Dahlia".
- Compliant false confessions are given to escape a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. An example is the setting of a police interrogation; these are often conducted in stark rooms with no windows or objects other than a table and two chairs. For suspects, the room becomes reality, and this creates serious mental exhaustion for the individual being questioned. After enough time suspects may confess to crimes they did not commit to escape what feels like a helpless situation. Interrogation techniques such as the Reid technique try to suggest to the suspect that they will experience a feeling of moral appeasement if they choose to confess. Material rewards like coffee or the cessation of the interrogation are also used to the same effect. People may also confess to a crime they did not commit as a form of plea bargaining to avoid a harsher sentence. People who are easily coerced score high on the Gudjonsson suggestibility scale.
- Internalized false confessions are those in which the person genuinely believes that they have committed the crime, as a result of highly suggestive interrogation techniques.
According to the Innocence Project, approximately 25% of convicted criminals ultimately exonerated had, in fact, confessed to the crime. In Canada, courts of law have recognized as valid confessions that were acquired, even though the interrogators lied by suggesting they had substantial evidence against a given suspect when in fact they did not, something known as the "bluff" technique. The high pressure generated may push innocent individuals to produce a confession.
A 2010 study from CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice used laboratory experiments that test how the bluff technique correlates with confessions gained from innocent parties. Subjects were instructed to complete a task on a computer, then were falsely accused of a transgression such as crashing the computer or collaborating with a colleague to improve their task performance. Bluff evidence, false evidence, and unreliable witnesses were used to test their effect. In the first test, 60% of the subjects confessed to the experimenter to pressing a computer key they had been instructed to avoid when, in fact, they had not; an additional 10% admitted to pressing the key to a study observer. A second group that tested subject reactions to charges of cheating produced nearly identical percentages of false confessions. The authors note, "innocent people who stand accused believe that their innocence will become apparent to others ... which leads them to waive their Miranda right to silence and to an attorney."
False confessions greatly undermine the due process rights of the individual who has confessed. As Justice Brennan noted in his dissent in Colorado v. Connelly, "Our distrust for reliance on confessions is due, in part, to their decisive impact upon the adversarial process. Triers of fact accord confessions such heavy weight in their determinations that 'the introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court superfluous, and the real trial, for all practical purposes, occurs when the confession is obtained.' No other class of evidence is so profoundly prejudicial. 'Thus the decision to confess before trial amounts in effect to a waiver of the right to require the state at trial to meet its heavy burden of proof.'"
Coerced false confessions have been used for directly political purposes. The systematic use of coerced confessions of political prisoners to extract public recantations for propaganda purposes has occurred in the twentieth (and twenty first) century in Stalin's Soviet Union, Maoist China, and most recently the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Tainá Rape (2013)
Four men were arrested and confessed of raping and killing a girl named Tainá who was crossing in front of the theme park where they worked. Later the police found that the girl was not raped, and that the four men were tortured. 13 policemen were arrested, and the police chief fled.
Simon Marshall (1997)
Simon Marshall was a Canadian rape suspect who was imprisoned for five years before genetic evidence found him innocent. Mental retardation was a factor in his confession.
Thirteen men and women, ranging in age from their early 50s to mid-70s, were arrested and indicted in Japan for buying votes in an election. Six confessed to buying votes with liquor, cash and catered parties. All were acquitted in 2007 in a local district court, which found that the confessions had been entirely fabricated. The presiding judge said the defendants had "made confessions in despair while going through marathon questioning."
Stephen Downing (1974)
Stephen Downing spent 27 years in prison. The main piece of evidence used against him was a confession he signed, but only after an 8-hour interrogation which left him confused, and his poor literacy skills meant he did not fully understand what he was signing.
Stefan Kiszko (1976)
Stefan Kiszko was convicted of murder in 1976, in what was later described as "the worst miscarriage of justice of all time". One of the main pieces of prosecution evidence was a confession made after three days of police questioning. After almost 16 years in prison, Kiszko was exonerated in 1992. When asked why he had confessed to a crime he did not commit, Kiszko replied "I started to tell these lies and they seemed to please them and the pressure was off as far as I was concerned. I thought if I admitted what I did to the police they would check out what I had said, find it untrue and would then let me go".
Brown v. Mississippi (1936)
In the United States, the 1936 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Mississippi established conclusively that confessions extracted through the use of physical brutality violate the Due Process Clause. In this case, defendants, Arthur Ellington, Ed Brown and Henry Shields (three black tenant farmers) had been sentenced to death for the murder of Raymond Stewart (a white planter) on March 30, 1934. The convictions had been based solely on confessions obtained through violence:
- "... defendants were made to strip and they were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it, and they were likewise made by the said deputy definitely to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present; and in this manner the defendants confessed the crime, and, as the whippings progressed and were repeated, they changed or adjusted their confession in all particulars of detail so as to conform to the demands of their torturers. When the confessions had been obtained in the exact form and contents as desired by the mob, they left with the parting admonition and warning that, if the defendants changed their story at any time in any respect from that last stated, the perpetrators of the outrage would administer the same or equally effective treatment.
- "Further details of the brutal treatment to which these helpless prisoners were subjected need not be pursued. It is sufficient to say that in pertinent respects the transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government."
The Supreme Court concluded: "It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process.... In the instant case, the trial court was fully advised by the undisputed evidence of the way in which the confessions had been procured.... The court thus denied a federal right fully established and specially set up and claimed, and the judgment must be reversed."
Debra Sue Carter case (1982)
Dennis Fritz and Ronald 'Ron' Keith Williamson were wrongly convicted of the murder of Ada, Oklahoma resident Debra Carter. Fritz was given a life sentence, while Williamson was sentenced to death in 1988. Fritz and Williamson were the subjects of John Grisham's non-fiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, which later went on to become a bestseller. Fritz later had his conviction overturned and was released from prison on April 15, 1999. Fritz has published his own personal account of the tragedy, titled Journey Toward Justice. Williamson, a former minor league baseball player, after serving 11 years on death row, was exonerated by DNA evidence and other material introduced by the Innocence Project and released in 1999.
Pizza Hut murder (1988)
In 1988, Nancy DePriest was raped and murdered at the Pizza Hut where she worked in Austin, Texas. A coworker, Chris Ochoa, pleaded guilty to the murder. His friend, Richard Danziger, was convicted of the rape. Ochoa confessed to the murder, as well as implicating Danziger in the rape. It was later discovered that the confession had been coerced. The only forensic evidence linking Danziger to the crime scene was a single pubic hair found in the restaurant said to be consistent with his pubic hair type. Although semen evidence had been collected, no DNA analysis was performed at this time. Both men received life sentences. Years later a man by the name of Achim Marino began writing letters from prison claiming he was the actual murderer. The DNA was finally tested and it did indeed match with Marino. In 2001 Ochoa and Danziger were exonerated and released from prison after 12 years of incarceration. While in prison, Danziger had been severely beaten by other inmates and suffered permanent brain damage.
Central Park jogger case (1989)
In the Central Park jogger case, on April 19, 1989, five teens aged from 14 to 16 were arrested and each confessed on videotape to the crime of attacking and raping a jogger and implicated each other. They later repudiated these confessions and maintained their innocence. The five were: Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise. In 1989, the police were aware that an unidentified sixth person had left semen on the victim's body. In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, admitted that he was responsible for the rape and attack of the jogger. The DNA obtained from the crime scene matched Reyes. New York state justice Charles J. Tejada vacated the convictions of five defendants on December 19, 2002. Yusef Salaam served six and a half years in prison. Kharey Wise was imprisoned until summer 2002, which was when his sentence was completed.
Jeffrey Mark Deskovic (1990)
Jeffrey Mark Deskovic, was convicted in 1990 at age 16, of raping, beating and strangling a high school classmate, even though jurors were told the DNA evidence in the case did not point to him. He was incarcerated for 15 years. He confessed to the crime after hours of an interrogation without being given an opportunity to seek legal counsel.
Juan Rivera (1992)
Juan Rivera, a Waukegan, Illinois man, was wrongfully convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker. A number of pieces of evidence excluded Juan, including DNA from the rape kit and the report from the electronic ankle monitor he was wearing at the time while awaiting trial for a non-violent burglary, however, he confessed after being interrogated for several days using the Reid technique, a style of police interrogation that is known for its history of eliciting false confessions. His conviction was overturned in 2011 and the appellate took the unusual step of barring prosecutors from retrying him. Rivera filed a lawsuit against a number of parties, including John E. Reid & Associates, who developed the Reid technique. Reid contends that the false confession was the result of the Reid technique being used incorrectly. Rivera was taken to Reid headquarters in Chicago twice during his interrogation for polygraph tests, which were inconclusive, however, an employee named Michael Masokas told Rivera that he failed. The case was settled out of court with John E. Reid & Associates paying $2 million.
Gary Gauger (1993)
Gary Gauger was sentenced to death for the murders of his parents, Morris, 74, and Ruth, 70, at their McHenry County, Illinois farm in April 1993. He was interrogated for over 21 hours and gave the police a hypothetical statement, and they took it as a confession. His conviction was overturned in 1996 and Gauger was freed. He was pardoned in 2002. Two motorcycle gang members were later convicted of Morris and Ruth Gauger's murders.
West Memphis Three (1993)
The West Memphis Three (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) were convicted for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys. One month after the murders, police interrogated Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, for five hours before he confessed to the murders, implicating Echols and Baldwin. Misskelley immediately recanted and said he was coerced to confess. Despite that the confession contained massive internal inconsistencies and differed significantly from what the physical evidence revealed, Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life without parole and Echols was sentenced to death. For the next 17 years, they maintained their innocence. In August 2011, DNA evidence was inconclusive and included an unknown contributor. Prosecutors did not throw out the convictions based on other evidence and offered them a deal that they plead guilty in exchange for time served. They accepted, but said that they will continue to clear their names and find the real murderer(s).
Norfolk Four (1997)
Derek Tice, Danial Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr. and Eric C. Wilson are four of the five men convicted in the brutal rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997 in Norfolk, Virginia. The convictions of the four were largely based on confessions, which they maintain were coerced. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project considers this a miscarriage of justice. Moore-Bosko's parents, however, continue to believe that all those convicted were participants in the crime. Tice, Williams and Dick either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of the murder, and were sentenced to one or more life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. Wilson was convicted of rape and sentenced to 8½ years in prison. Three other men, Geoffrey A. Farris, John E. Danser and Richard D. Pauley, Jr., were also initially charged with the crime, but their charges were later dropped. The supporters of the Norfolk Four have offered evidence that purports to prove they are innocent, with no known involvement or connections to the incident.
The fifth man, Omar Ballard, was also convicted in the crime, and was sentenced to 100 years in prison, 59 of which were suspended. He is the only man whose DNA matches that found at the scene, and his confession states that he committed the crime by himself, with none of the other men involved. Forensic evidence is consistent with his story that there were no other participants.
Michael Crowe (1998)
Michael Crowe confessed to the murder of his younger sister Stephanie Crowe in 1998. Michael, 14 at the time, was targeted by police when he seemed "distant and preoccupied" after Stephanie's body was discovered and the rest of the family grieved. After two days of intense questioning, Michael admitted to killing Stephanie. His confession was vague and lacked detail; he said he could not remember committing the crime but believed he must have done so based on what the police were telling him. The confession was videotaped by police and showed Michael saying things to the effect of, "I'm only saying this because it's what you want to hear." His admission has been cited as a classic example of a coerced false confession during police interrogation.
Joshua Treadway, a friend of Michael's, was questioned and gave a detailed confession after many hours of interrogation. Aaron Houser, a mutual friend of the boys, was questioned and did not actually confess but presented a "hypothetical" and incriminating account of the crime under prompting by police interrogators using the Reid Technique. All three boys subsequently recanted their statements claiming coercion.
Michael Crowe's confession and Houser's statements to police were later thrown out as coerced by a judge, while part of Treadway's confession was as well. The parts upheld of Treadway's confession later became moot when all charges were dropped against all three boys. This did however present difficulties for prosecutors later charging an unrelated party with the crime whose defense team argued that the boys had been responsible.
The charges against the three boys were dismissed without prejudice (which would allow charges to be reinstated at a later date) after DNA testing linked a neighborhood transient, Richard Tuite, to her blood. Embarrassed by the reversal, the Escondido police and the San Diego County District Attorney let the case languish without charges for two years. In 2001 the District Attorney and San Diego County Sheriff's Department asked that the case be taken over by the California Department of Justice. Tuite was convicted of the murder in 2004, but the conviction was overturned. A second trial in 2013 found him not guilty, and the murder remains unsolved. In 2012, Superior Court Judge Kenneth So made the rare ruling that Michael Crowe, Treadway and Houser were factually innocent of the charges, permanently dismissing the City of Escondido case against them.
Corethian Bell (2000)
In 2000 Corethian Bell, who has a diagnosis of mental retardation, was accused of murdering his mother after he found her body and called police. Police questioned him for more than 50 hours. He said he eventually confessed to the murder of his mother, Netta Bell, because police hit him so hard he was knocked off his chair, and because he thought that if he confessed, the interrogations would stop, so that he could then explain himself to a judge and be set free. His confession was videotaped, but his interrogation was not; at the time Cook County, Illinois prosecutors were required to videotape murder confessions, but not interrogations. With a confession on tape, he was then prosecuted and sent to jail. When the DNA at the crime scene was finally tested a year later, it matched a serial rapist named DeShawn Boyd, who already was in prison for three other violent sexual assaults, all in the same neighborhood as the Netta Bell murder. Bell filed a civil lawsuit, which was settled by the city in 2006 for $1 million.
Kevin Fox (2004)
Kevin Fox was interrogated for 14 hours by Will County, Illinois police before confessing to the 2004 murder of his 3-year old daughter, Riley, which later turned out to be coerced. The real killer turned out to be Scott Eby, a neighbor living a few miles from the Fox family. Police identified him as the killer while he was serving a 14-year sentence for sex crimes, thanks to DNA results that had not been tested before. After questioning Eby confessed and later pleaded guilty. Kevin Fox was released after 8 months in jail. The Fox family eventually won an $8 million civil judgment against the government.
Islamic Republic of Iran
According to at least two observers (Ervand Abrahamian, Nancy Updike), the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has systematically used false confessions extracted by torture. They have been used on a much larger scale than in Stalin's Soviet Union because the confessions could be videotaped and broadcast for purposes of propaganda. During the 1980s, television "recantation" shows were common on Iranian state television.
According to scholar Ervand Abrahamian, the confessions
"could be taped—with little effort and cost—then edited, polished and if necessary, remade from scratch. The final product could be aired on radio and television, reaching audiences far greater than those of newspapers and pamphlets. By the mid-1980s, most Iranians—including peasants—had easy access to radio and television. The video further enabled the regime to fully control the timing as well as the content of the eventual show. ... The Islamic Republic, ... has the dubious honor of being the world's premier producer of recantation shows."
As eyewitness accounts were published documenting the use of torture in extracting confessions, the recantations and confessions have lost much (or some) of their propaganda impact. The practice of collecting confessions has continued however, now used more to demoralize the opposition, gather information about them and sow fear and distrust among the Iranian opposition as "recanters" accuse other opposition members. There were reportedly so many confessions coerced following the 2009 protest crackdown that "there's no way to film even a tiny percentage of them."
The public e'terafat in Iran are not simply confessions, but "political and ideological recantation(s)." They come in a variety of forms, "pretrial testimonials; in chest-beating letters; in mea culpa memoirs; press conferences,` debates`, and `roundtable discussions`", but most commonly in videotaped `interviews` and `conversations` aired on prime-time television."
The standard form taken in the time of Ayatollah Khomeini began with an introduction hailing the Imam Khomeini with all of his titles (Founder of the Islamic Republic, leader of the Islamic Revolution, etc.) The recanter
emphasized the interview was entirely voluntary and that the speaker had come forth willingly to warn others of the pitfalls awaiting them if they deviated from the Khatt-e Imam [line of the Imam] Then followed condemnation of the prisoners organization, beliefs, comrades. Ended with a thanks to the wardens [for the opportunity to] see the light. It hoped that the sincere repentance and the Imam's compassion would pave the way for forgiveness, redemption, ... [however, if] the Imam chose not to forgive, that too would be understandable in light of the enormity of the crimes."
These recantations served as powerful propaganda not only for both the Iranian public at large but also for the recanter's former colleagues, for whom the denunciations were demoralizing and confusing. From the moment they arrived in prison, through their interrogation prisoners were asked if they were willing to give an "interview." (mosahebah) "Some remained incarcerated even after serving their sentences simply because they declined the honor of being interviewed."
While the constitution of the Islamic Republic explicitly outlaws shekanjeh (torture) and the use of coerced confessions, other laws are employed to allow coercion. Up to 74 lashings can be administered for 'lying to the authorities,' and a defendant may be found guilty of lying by a cleric in the process of interrogating the defendant. Thus "clerical interrogators can give indefinite series of 74 lashings until they obtain 'honest answers.'"
Techniques used to extract confessions included whipping, most often on the soles of the feet; deprivation of sleep; suspension from ceiling and high walls; twisting of forearms until they broke; crushing of hands and fingers between metal presses; insertion of sharp instruments under the fingernails; cigarette burns; submersion under water; standing in one place for hours on end; mock executions; and physical threats against family members.
According to one defendant "his interrogator kept on repeating throughout his torment 'This hadd punishment will continue until you give us a videotaped interview,'" "interview" being the term used for confession sessions.
In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge used torture to force confessions and false implications from approximately 17,000 persons at the former Tuol Sleng high school. All but seven either were executed or died due to the mistreatment. The leaders of the interrogation and torture system of the Khmer Rouge were Mam Nai and Tang Sin Hean.
In the Soviet Union a series of show trials known as the Moscow Show Trials, were orchestrated by Joseph Stalin during the Great Purge of the late 1930s, and sent 40+ high-level political prisoners either to the firing squad or to labor camps. The trials are today universally acknowledged to have used forced confessions, obtained through torture and threats against the defendants' families, to eliminate any potential political challengers to Stalin's authority.
Birmingham Six (1974)
The Birmingham Six were six men from Northern Ireland accused of carrying out the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. After their arrest four of the six confessed to the crime. These confessions were later claimed to be as a result of intimidation and torture by police, including the use of dogs and mock executions. In 1991, after 17 years in prison, an appeal into their convictions was allowed which showed widespread police fabrication, suppression of evidence and extreme irregularities in the relevant forensic evidence. All six individuals were then released and awarded compensation of up to £1.2 million. As a result of this and other miscarriages of justice a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was established in March 1991.
Guildford Four (1974)
As a result of the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 four individuals were charged and convicted of murder and terrorist activities. All had confessed to the crimes while in police custody but later retracted their statements. In their trial they would claim that the confessions were a result of intimidation and torture by police. A further seven relatives of one of the original four were also convicted of terrorist activities in 1976. All of the individuals involved had their convictions quashed after up to 16 years in prison by two rulings in 1989 and 1991. These investigations revealed large scale deception and illegal activities undertaken by both the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In 2005 the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, issued a public apology for their imprisonment, describing it as an 'injustice' and stating that "they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated".
Robert Hubert (1666)
In 1666, Robert Hubert confessed to starting the Great Fire of London by throwing a fire bomb through a bakery window. It was proven during his trial that he had not been in the country until two days after the start of the fire, he was never at any point near the bakery in question, the bakery did not actually have windows, and he was crippled and unable to throw a bomb. Nevertheless, as a foreigner, a Frenchman, and a Catholic, Hubert was a perfect scapegoat. Ever maintaining his guilt, Hubert was brought to trial, found guilty, and duly executed by hanging.
John Mark Karr (2006)
In 2006, John Mark Karr confessed to the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. He had become obsessed with the every detail of her murder and was extradited from Thailand. His story did not match details of the case, and his DNA did not match that found at the crime scene. His wife and brother said he was home in another state at the time of the murder, and had never been to Colorado, where the murder occurred.
Laverne Pavlinac (1990)
Laverne Pavlinac confessed that she and her boyfriend murdered a woman in Oregon in 1990. They were convicted, then released five years later when Keith Hunter Jesperson confessed to a series of murders. Pavlinac had become obsessed with details of the crime. She later said she confessed to get out of the abusive relationship with the boyfriend. Her boyfriend confessed to avoid the death penalty.
Sture Bergwall confessed to more than 30 murders in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland while incarcerated in a mental institution for personality disorders as a result of committing less serious crimes. Between 1994 and 2001 he was convicted of eight murders, but all of these convictions have now been overturned.
- Several people claimed to have abducted the child in the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping.
- Several people claimed to have been involved with the 1947 Black Dahlia murder.
Fabricated jailhouse confessions
These are confessions given to other inmates while in custody. "Jailhouse informants who recount their fellow prisoners' 'confessions' are often used by the state as witnesses in criminal prosecutions. It has recently become public knowledge that such confessions are easily fabricated."
Taping interrogations and confessions
When examining the particulars of false confessions and wrongful convictions, it is verifiable that many problems originate in the interrogation phase of the investigation where coercion leads to an extraction of a false confession from the detained suspect. The widespread solution has been to video record custodial interrogations.
Until the 1980s, most confession evidence was recorded and later presented at trial in either a written or an audiotaped format. Today, it is estimated that more than half of the law enforcement agencies in the United States videotape at least some interrogations. 97% of these agencies and departments have found them useful. In Great Britain, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 built certain protections into the questioning process, including the requirement that all suspect interviews be taped.
Prevalent assumptions of videotaped confessions suggest that they allow for a more complete and objective record of the police-suspect interaction, and they serve as a visual representation that can be interpreted more fluidly by fact finders (the judge and the jurors) during the trial proceedings. Moreover, those who advocate videotaping interrogations argue that the presence of the camera will deter the use of coercive methods to induce confessions and will provide a record to evaluate thoroughly the voluntariness and veracity of any confession.
Camera perspective bias
Psychological research suggests that evaluations of videotaped confessions are altered by changes in the camera perspective used at initial recording. In the United States and in many other countries, interrogations are typically recorded with the camera positioned behind the interrogator and focused squarely on the suspect. Research indicates that the camera perspective influences assessments of voluntariness, coercion on the part of the detective, and even the dichotomy of guilt.
Extensive empirical data has been collected in this area, manipulating the camera perspective to a suspect-focus (the front of the suspect from waist up and the back of the detective's head and shoulders), detective-focus (the front of the detective and the back of the suspect), and equal-focus (the profiles of both the detective and the suspect were equally visible) perspective. For example, mock police interrogations resulting in a confession and videotaped simultaneously from the suspect-focus and equal-focus perspectives were presented to participants in one of the following formats: subject-focus videotape, equal-focus videotape, audiotape recording, or written transcript. The participants' perceptions of the voluntariness and coercion of the confession were assessed via questionnaire. Videotaped confessions taped in the suspect-focus view resulted in judgments of relatively greater voluntariness, notably when compared to both audiotapes and transcripts which are assumed to be bias free. Equal-focus videotapes produced voluntariness judgments that did not differ from those based on either audiotapes or transcripts.
The manner in which videotaping is implemented holds the potential for bias. This bias can be avoided by using an equal-focus perspective. This finding has been replicated numerous times, reflecting the growing uses of videotaped confessions in trial proceedings.
Camera perspective bias is a result of fundamental attribution error and, more specifically, illusory causation. People commit attribution error when they ascribe causality to people or environmental entities to which they are attending. Illusory causation occurs when people ascribe unwanted causality to a stimulus simply because it is more noticeable or salient than other available stimuli. Illusory causation is perceptual-based, meaning it occurs because salient information is registered and perceptually organized differently from nonsalient information. In regards to camera perspective bias, the perspective of the camera determines which interactant (detective or suspect) is salient and which one is nonsalient.
Visual perspective is important in determining attributional differences between interactants. In early demonstrations of illusory causation, observers viewed a causal, two-person conversation. Visual perspective was varied by the differential seating of the observers. After the conversation ended, observers rated each interactant in terms of the amount of causal influence he or she exerted during the exchange. The results revealed that greater causality was attributed to whichever person observers happened to be facing. This was determined by their seating position, a factor that is entirely incidental and should therefore have had no bearing on causal judgments. Observers who sat where they could see both interactants very well viewed both subjects equally in terms of causality.
Attributional complexity is the ability to efficiently deduce causality in necessary situations. High levels of attributional complexity do not alter the effects of the camera perspective bias. Participants separated in low attributional complexity and high attributional complexity groups according to individual differences, showed no significant differences in the camera perspective effect that was still present in both groups. Therefore, possessing a high level of attributional complexity does not shield one from the camera perspective bias in videotaped confessions.
Changes in camera perspective are accompanied by changes in the visual content available to the observer. Using eye-tracking as a measure and monitor of visual attention, researchers deduced that visual attention mediates the camera perspective bias. That is, the correlation between camera perspective and the resulting bias is caused by the viewer's visual attention, which is decided by the angle of the camera. This provides evidence that differences in visual content may also mediate bias.
Reducing the bias
Judges conduct an omnibus hearing with prosecutors and defense counsel to decide on the voluntariness and the admissibility of a confession when its legitimacy is disputed. Likewise, it is the job of jurors to decide on the voluntariness of the confession, which ultimately leads to the dichotomous decision of conviction. Research shows that a judge's requirement-of-proof instruction to a mock jury (the defendant is presumed innocent, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt) has more impact on jurors' verdicts when made prior to the presentation of evidence than when made after the presentation of evidence.
Therefore, the timing of judicial instruction (before or after the presentation of the confession) can be a potential moderator of the camera perspective bias. When participants are given judicial instruction emphasizing the need to be cognizant of reliability and fairness in evaluating the confession and, in some cases, directly alerting mock jurors to the potentially prejudicial effect of camera perspective, the camera perspective bias persists. This is true whether the instruction precedes or follows the presentation of the confession. The sampling of jury-eligible adults facilitated a realistic, fact-based trial simulation allowing the results can be generalized to real courtroom situations.
Judges play a crucial role in determining what confession evidence juries are allowed to consider. It is possible that their greater knowledge, experience, and understanding of the law can mitigate them against the camera bias effect. Yet, experts (judges and law enforcement officers) presented with suspect-focus, detective-focus, and equal focus versions of a videotaped confession replicated prior data patterns, indicating camera bias perspective. Thus, relevant expertise provides no defense against the influence of camera perspective.
Accountability (or blameworthiness) does not alter camera perspective bias even though high accountability yield a more careful and thorough processing of information. Failed attempts have been made to mitigate camera perspective bias by manipulating the amount of accountability participants feel while viewing a confession. Accountability is manipulated by telling participants that they will later have an opportunity to justify their judgments of voluntariness to a trial judge. More specifically, in a high-accountability group, participants are told that a local judge has agreed to meet with them to review their judgment and determine if the manner in which they arrived at their judgment is correct. In the low-accountability condition, no mention of meeting with a judge is made; instead participants are left with the impression that their responses will be confidential and anonymous. Participants view either the subject-focus or equal-focus version of the confession. Ratings of voluntariness in both the high-accountability and low-accountability groups show camera perspective bias.
Ecological validity argument
Criticisms regarding psychological research concerning jury simulation claim that it lacks in ecological validity. According to these criticisms, moving closer to a high standard of ecological validity is required for psychological science to sway the skeptical legal community. One issue cited through archival data collection addresses the popular use of college undergraduate students, which is especially detrimental in jury simulation because of the relative infrequency with which college students serve on actual juries. According to the criticism, this hinders "the feasibility of generalizing from simulation studies to the behavior of real juror." In order to satisfy the skeptical nature of the law community, as discussed above, researchers began using jury-eligible adults instead of undergraduate students.
Another limitation to camera perspective bias research is that the majority of interrogations/confessions that have been used as converging evidence include simulations of trial evidence rather than actual trial information. Therefore, there is no evidence demonstrating the camera perspective bias generalizes to authentic videotapes recorded by police that depict actual suspects and interrogators. Researchers have thus begun comparing judgments of voluntariness and guilt of the suspect in each perspective condition (suspect-focus, equal-focus, and detective-focus, audio only, reading only) using authentic, recorded interrogations. The investigations demonstrate the camera perspective bias found in previous studies.
Research indicates that an equal focus perspective produces relatively unbiased assessments of videotaped interrogations. However, many members of law enforcement may consider the equal-focus view unsatisfactory because it does not provide a full-face view of the suspect, and thus important information in the expression cannot be presented. Investigation into the dual-camera approach revealed that this perspective eliminates the usual camera perspective bias on voluntariness and guilt judgments, but it was no better than the infamous suspect-focus condition in terms of its impact on the ability to accurately distinguish between true and false confession.
- Custodial interrogations recorded in their entirety with the camera positioned so that the resultant videotape displays an equal-focus or detective-focus perspective.
- If an interrogation has already been videotaped from a suspect-focus perspective, it should not be used. Rather, the use of an audio track or a transcript derived from the videotape should serve in its place.
- The dual-camera approach is not advised because it does nothing to moderate actual accuracy of judgments.
Police use persuasive manipulation techniques when conducting interrogations in hopes of obtaining a confession. These can include lying about evidence, making suspects believe they are there to help them, or pretending to be the suspect's friends. After enough time and persuasion suspects are likely to conform to the investigators' demands for a confession, even if it was to a crime they did not commit. One of the most important findings in guilt manipulation research is that once guilt is induced in the subject, it can be directed into greater compliance with requests that are completely unrelated to the original source of guilt. This has important implications for police interrogation, because guilt induction is recommended in manuals on police interrogation. A 2010 study conducted by Fisher and Geiselman showed the lack of instruction given to entry-level police officers regarding the interview process. They stated in their research that, "We were discouraged to find that police often receive only minimal, and sometimes no, formal training to interview cooperative witnesses, and, not surprisingly, their actual interview practices are quite poor." While many officers may develop their own interview techniques, the lack of formal training could lead to interviewing with the purpose of simply completing the investigation, regardless of the truth. The easiest way to complete an investigation would be a confession. Fisher and Geiselman concur, saying, "It seems to be more on interrogating suspects (to elicit confessions) rather than on interviewing cooperative witnesses and victims". This study suggests that more training could prevent false confessions, and give police a new mindset while in the interview room.
Racial salience bias
Psychological research has explored camera perspective bias with African American and Chinese American suspects. African Americans are victims to strong stereotypes linking them with criminal behavior, but these stereotypes are not prevalent towards Chinese Americans, making the two ethnicities ideal for comparison. Participants were randomly assigned to view mock police interrogations developed using a male Caucasian detective questioning a Caucasian, Chinese American, or African American male suspect regarding his whereabouts at a given time and date. All interrogations were taped in an equal-focus perspective. Voluntariness judgments varied as a function of the race of the suspect. More participants viewing the Chinese American suspect and the African American suspect versions of the interrogation judged the suspect's statements to be voluntary than did those viewing the Caucasian suspect version. Both the African American suspect and the Chinese American suspect were judged to have a higher likelihood of guilt than the Caucasian suspect. Racial salience bias in videotaped interrogations is a genuine phenomenon that has been proven through empirical data.
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