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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 has demonstrated that false confessions occur on a regular basis in case law. Juveniles have a significantly higher rate of false confessions than do adults.
This 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. For example, in the United States federal system, before the court enters judgment on a guilty plea, it must determine that there is a factual basis for the plea.
- 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 in Los Angeles, who was known as the "Black Dahlia" in a spectacular case.
- Compliant false confessions are given to escape a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. An example of a stressful situation is the typical 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 in order 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 such as 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 in order to avoid the risk of a harsher sentence after trial. People who are easily coerced are known to score high on the Gudjonsson suggestibility scale and are highly vulnerable to making false confessions.
- 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 who were ultimately exonerated had confessed to the crime. In Canada, courts of law have recognized that in some circumstances, interrogators coerce suspects into confession using the "bluff" technique: innocent suspects are told by detectives that there is substantial evidence against them, which pressures the suspect to confess. This pressure has been shown to push innocent suspects into false confessions.
A 2010 study from John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York (CUNY) used laboratory experiments that test how the use of 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."
"Our distrust for reliance on confessions is due, in part, to their decisive impact upon the adversarial process. Triers of fact accord confessions such heavyweight 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 direct 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.
Bahraini authorities refused for more than two years to investigate complaints regarding the torture of Mohamed Ramadan—a father-of-three on death row who was tortured into making a false confession.
In February 2014, Mohammed was arrested from Bahrain International Airport, where he worked as a police officer. He was accused of involvement in an attack on other police officers. There is no evidence tying him to the crime, according to Reprieve, who state that Mohammed is innocent and was arrested in retaliation for his attendance at peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.
Following his arrest, Mohammed was tortured by police into signing a false confession. During his initial detention, police officers "told Mohammed outright that they knew he was innocent", but were punishing him as a traitor for attending pro-democracy demonstrations.
During his entire pre-trial detention, Mohammed was not allowed to meet with his lawyer. The day Mohammed's trial began was the first time he saw his lawyer's face. In that trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death almost solely on the basis of confessions extracted through prolonged torture.
Seven men under capital punishment (2016)
Reprieve, a human rights defender organisation, published an investigative report in 2016 about British involvement in Bahrain's regime atrocity. The report says that seven innocent men are facing the death penalty in Bahrain after being tortured into false confessions of crimes.
Sami Mushaima, Ali Al-Singace, Abbas Al-Samea (2017) Executed
On 15 January 2017 Bahraini authorities executed three torture victims following authorization by King Hamad. Sami Mushaima (42), Ali Al-Singace (21) and Abbas Al-Samea (27) were executed by firing squad.
Bahrain security forces (a force that includes foreign national forces) arrested Sami Mushaima in March 2014 and held him incommunicado for at least 11 days. Security officials subjected Mushaima to beatings, electrocution, and sexual assault. His front teeth were severely damaged. Mushaima's family believes he was coerced into falsely confessing through the use of torture.
Sami Mushaima, Ali Al-Singace, and Abbas Al-Samea are all torture victims rendered stateless and condemned to death following unfair trials. Their executions have sparked widespread protests across the country.
It is nothing short of an outrage – and a disgraceful breach of international law – that Bahrain has gone ahead with these executions. The death sentences handed to Ali, Sami and Abbas were based on confessions extracted through torture, and the trial an utter sham. . . .
It would be shameful if the UK continued to support Bahrain's security apparatus and Ministry of Interior in the face of such terrible abuses.
The European Union also condemned the sentences.
"This case is a serious drawback given that Bahrain had suspended executions for... (several) years, and concerns have been expressed about possible violations of the right to a fair process for the three convicted," an EU statement said.
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 wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for five years, largely based on his false confession to the crime. Later DNA testing established that he was innocent. It is believed that his mental disability, resulting in limited intellectual capacity, contributed to his being vulnerable to coercion and making the false confession.
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.
Since 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 in the time of Ayatollah Khomeini began with an introduction hailing 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 prisoner's organization, beliefs, comrades. Ended with 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 the 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.
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."
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. More than 40 high-level political prisoners were sentenced 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.
The Crime of Cuenca (1910)
Due to police torture, two men confessed to the murder of another man who had disappeared. Based solely on their confession, as no body had been recovered, they were convicted and sentenced to long jail terms. Years later the supposed victim reappeared in the small village, and it was proven that he had left voluntarily years before.
Stephen Downing (1974)
Stephen Downing was convicted and spent 27 years in prison. The main piece of evidence used against him was a confession he signed. He had agreed to this after an 8-hour interrogation which left him confused, and his poor literacy skills meant he did not fully understand what he was signing.
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 the result of intimidation and torture by police, including the use of dogs and mock executions. In 1991, after 17 years in prison, an appeal to their convictions was allowed. The evidence at hearing showed widespread police fabrication, suppression of evidence, and extreme irregularities in the relevant forensic evidence. All six individuals were 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 to create reforms and provide oversight to the process.
Guildford Four (1974)
As a result of the Guildford pub bombings carried out by Irish republican paramilitaries in 1974, four Irish 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 they had made false confessions, resulting from intimidation and torture by police. Seven relatives of one of the original four defendants were also convicted of terrorist activities in 1976. All of the individuals involved had their convictions quashed, by two rulings in 1989 and 1991, after having served up to 16 years in prison. These appeals 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 the imprisonment of these persons, describing it as an 'injustice' and stating that "they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated".
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 he 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 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Mississippi (1936) 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 convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi for the murder of Raymond Stewart (a white planter) on 30 March 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."
Peter Reilly (1973)
In 1973, 18-year-old Peter Reilly of Litchfield County, Connecticut, was convicted of murdering his mother. He had signed a detailed confession after first discovering and informing of the crime, and then being detained and interrogated for many hours with little sleep. During this interrogation, with no lawyer present, he agreed to undergo a polygraph, which he was wrongly told he had failed, and was persuaded that only he could have committed the crime. He was sentenced to six to sixteen years for manslaughter but freed on appeal in 1976.
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 his confession had been coerced. The only forensic evidence linking Danziger to the crime scene was a single pubic hair found in the restaurant, which was said to be consistent with his pubic hair type. Although semen evidence had been collected, no DNA analysis was performed at the time. Both men received life sentences.
Years later a man named Achim Marino began writing letters from prison claiming he was the actual murderer in the Pizza Hut case. The DNA from the crime scene was finally tested, and it matched that of Marino. The DNA of Ochoa and Danziger was excluded from matching that evidence.
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 of 19 April 1989, five teens aged from 14 to 16 were among 10 suspects arrested for the rape and assault of a female jogger, as well as assaults on other victims in the park. Four confessed on videotape to the crime of attacking and raping the jogger and implicated each other in the attack. One had implicated others in his statement, but refused to sign it or to be videotaped, after his mother joined him at the station. The five youths later repudiated these confessions as false and coerced, refused plea deals, and maintained their innocence. The five were: Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, and Kharey Wise.
In 1989, the police learned that none of the suspects' DNA matched that associated with semen in two samples left in and near the victim. Both samples belonged to a single source, an unidentified "sixth" man. In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to officials and provided an affidavit that he was solely responsible for the rape and attack of the jogger. His DNA matched that obtained from the crime scene. Following an investigation by the DA's office, which recommended vacating the convictions of the four men, New York state justice Charles J. Tejada vacated the convictions of four of the five defendants on 19 December 2002 (who had all completed their sentences by then.) One was out of custody and not covered by this action. Four had served between six and seven years in prison; Wise was tried and convicted as an adult and was not released until the summer of 2002, serving nearly 12 years. In 2014 the five men received a settlement from New York City, and in 2016 an additional settlement from New York State.
Jeffrey Mark Deskovic (1990)
Jeffrey Mark Deskovic was convicted in 1990, at the age of 16, of raping, beating and strangling a high school classmate. He had confessed to the crime after hours of interrogation by police without being given an opportunity to seek legal counsel. Court testimony noted that the DNA evidence in the case did not point to him. He was incarcerated for 15 years.
Juan Rivera (1992)
Juan Rivera, from Waukegan, Illinois, was wrongfully convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker. Although his DNA was excluded from that tested in 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) established that he was not in the vicinity of the murder, he confessed to the crimes. Rivera had been interrogated for several days by police using the Reid technique. It is a type of police interrogation that has become known in studies for eliciting false confessions. His conviction was overturned in 2011, and the appellate court 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 Rivera's 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. These were inconclusive, but a Reid employee, 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 more than 21 hours. He gave the police a hypothetical statement, which they took as a confession. His conviction was overturned in 1996, and Gauger was freed. He was pardoned by the Illinois governor 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. At the time of the alleged crime, they were 16, 17, and 18 years old. One month after the murders, police interrogated Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, for five hours. He confessed to the murders and implicated both Echols and Baldwin.
Misskelley immediately recanted and said he was coerced to confess. Although his confession contained massive internal inconsistencies and differed significantly from the facts of the physical evidence revealed, the prosecution continued. Misskelley and Baldwin were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole (LWOP); Echols was convicted and sentenced to death.
For the next 17 years, the three men maintained their innocence. In August 2011, testing of DNA evidence was found to be inconclusive; it included DNA from an unknown contributor.
Prosecutors offered the three men a deal if they pleaded guilty: to release them for time served. They accepted the Alford plea but said that they would continue to work to clear their names and find the real murderer(s). They were released after eighteen years in prison.
Norfolk Four (1997)
Danial Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr., Derek Tice, and Eric C. Wilson are four of five men convicted in the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk, Virginia. The convictions of the four were based largely on their confessions, which they have since maintained were coerced after hours of interrogation, during which the men were played off against each other over time. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project considers this a miscarriage of justice. Moore-Bosko's parents continue to believe that all those convicted were participants in the crime.
Williams and Dick pleaded guilty to murder, as they had been threatened by the potential of being sentenced to death at a jury trial. They were sentenced to one or more life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. Tice was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death. 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 indicted with the crime through accusations by others, but their charges were later dropped before trial as Tice would not testify against them. The supporters of the Norfolk Four have offered evidence that purports to prove that the four men are innocent, with no known involvement or connections to the incident. No physical evidence supported their cases. Tice's conviction was overturned, and Williams and Dick received governmental pardons, clearing their names. The four received a settlement from the city of Norfolk and state in 2018.
The fifth man, Omar Ballard, was indicted in 2005 after his DNA was found to match that at the crime scene. He had informally confessed in 1997 but withdrew his statement after being pressured to implicate the four other men. He pleaded guilty to the crime in 2009 in order to avoid the death penalty. A serial rapist and murderer, he was apprehended and sentenced to prison after he pleaded guilty to other crimes of violence against women, and confessed to acting alone. also convicted in the crime. He was sentenced to 100 years in prison, 59 of which were suspended. He is the only man whose DNA matched that found at the scene. He confessed to committing the crime by himself, and said none of the other men indicted and tried were 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 the 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 making statements 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 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.
Crowe's confession and Houser's statements to police were later thrown out as coerced by a judge; part of Treadway's confession was also ruled inadmissible. Later all charges were dropped against each of the three boys. Prosecutors later charged an unrelated party with the crime. His defense team argued that the three boys who were first charged 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 Stephanie's 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. At the second trial in 2013, the jury found him not guilty. The murder of Stephanie Crowe 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, Netta Bell, after he had found her body and called police in Cook County, Illinois. Police questioned him for more than 50 hours. He said he eventually confessed to the murder of his mother because police hit him so hard he was knocked off his chair, and because he thought that if he confessed, the interrogations would stop. He believed that he would be able to explain himself to a judge and be set free. His confession was videotaped, but his interrogation was not. At the time Cook County prosecutors were required to videotape murder confessions, but not the preceding interrogations. With his confession on tape, Bell was tried, convicted, and sentenced to jail.
When the DNA at the crime scene was finally tested a year later, it matched that of a serial rapist named DeShawn Boyd. He was already in prison after having been convicted of 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 he confessed to the 2004 murder of his 3-year-old daughter, Riley. He was convicted and sentenced to jail. His confession was later ruled to have been coerced. Because of DNA testing, police later identified Scott Eby as the killer. He was a neighbor living a few miles from the Fox family at the time of Riley's murder. Police identified him as the killer while he was serving a 14-year sentence for sex crimes. After questioning and confrontation with the DNA results, Eby confessed and later pleaded guilty.
Kevin Fox was released after serving eight months in jail. The Fox family eventually won an $8 million civil judgment against the county government.
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 have windows, and he was crippled and unable to throw a bomb. But, 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.
Laverne Pavlinac (1990)
Laverne Pavlinac confessed that she and her boyfriend murdered a woman in Oregon in 1990. They were convicted and sentenced to prison. Five years later, Keith Hunter Jesperson confessed to a series of murders, including that of the woman. Pavlinac had become obsessed with details of the crime during interrogation by police. She later said she confessed to get out of the abusive relationship with the boyfriend. Her boyfriend purportedly confessed in order to avoid the death penalty.
Sture Bergwall (1990)
Sture Bergwall, also known as Thomas Quick, confessed to more than 30 murders in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland while incarcerated in a mental institution for personality disorders. He had been committed after being convicted of less serious crimes. Between 1994 and 2001, Bergwall was convicted of eight murders, based on his confessions. All of these convictions have now been overturned on appeal as he was found to have made false confessions and been incompetent to stand trial.
John Mark Karr (2006)
In 2006, John Mark Karr confessed to the murder of a young American girl, JonBenét Ramsey. He had become obsessed with every detail of her murder and was extradited from Thailand based on his confession. But his account 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.
José Pedro Guedes (2011)
In 2011, José Guedes' son applied to appear in a TV show. He claimed that his father was the suspect known as the Lisbon Ripper of Portugal, a serial killer who had not been apprehended. Subsequently, the senior Guedes confirmed his guilt in an interview to a newspaper and gave several details about the murders. Guedes was arrested, but was charged only with a 2000 murder in Aveiro. He had confessed to this crime while he was in police custody. The statute of limitations for the Lisbon murders had already run out. On appeal in 2013, the court found that Guedes had not been proven guilty of the murder in 2000, based on lack of evidence. He was released from prison. The ruling noted that the details offered by Guedes about the Aveiro and Lisbon murders were largely inaccurate.
Sam as generic term
"Confessing Sam" is the term in criminal psychology for a person who makes a false confession after a particularly widely publicised crime has taken place.
- 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 in Los Angeles.
Fabricated jailhouse confessions
These are confessions given by prisoners 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, studies have documented that many problems originate in the interrogation phase of the investigation. At this stage, coercion may lead to an extraction of a false confession from the detained suspect. The widespread solution has been to video record custodial interrogations in order to monitor the process by defense and other parties.
Until the 1980s, most confession evidence was recorded by police 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. From 1989 to 2013, twenty-five states in the US passed laws requiring taping of interrogations in criminal cases.
It is widely believed that videotaped interrogations and confessions allow for a more complete and objective record of the police-suspect interaction. In addition, they serve as a visual and auditory 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 can be affected by the camera perspective used at the 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, based on 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 a 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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