By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Bigfoot… UFOs… False confessions… all three concepts are far-fetched nutty theories any police officer or prosecutor will tell you doesn’t exist (normally as they roll their eyes).
This article, “Interviewing suspects: Practice, science, and future directions” published by the British Psychological Society, however, shows the topic is no laughing matter. Not only do false confessions exist, but American law enforcement recklessly, intentionally, or obliviously utilizes pressure tactics proven to alarmingly raise the chances an innocent person questions their own innocence or attempts to extricate themselves from a psychologically terrifying situation and ultimately admits to a crime they didn’t commit.
The contributing factors according to the article include (but aren’t limited to) (1) a presumption of guilt by the interrogator; (2) focusing on traits of deceitfulness rather than traits of truthful responses; (3) unreliability of traits associated with being deceitful; (4) presenting the accused with false evidence or bluffing about unknown evidence; (5) minimizing or distorting the degree of the crime (implied leniency); (6) sleep deprivation and/or isolation; and (7) the psychological profile of the person confessing (whether factors such as susceptibility to anxiety, age, or cognitive ability play a role).
The article is obviously far more comprehensive than any editorial or summary I could write on the topic. One of the most striking studies the paper cites is the “forbidden key” study where people are told that hitting a particular “forbidden” key on a keyboard will cause a computer to crash. As the study goes, the computer used crashes and the person is blamed for hitting the forbidden key even though they were known not to have. Though the tests were varied several different ways, techniques such as minimization, alleging of false evidence, or even bluffing that incriminating evidence would likely be found later all dramatically increased and in some instances doubled the false confession rate as high as 94% — the subjects internalizing and questioning their own innocence. And as a scary afterthought — the article also discusses how judges and juries are very inadequate safeguards to bad confessions.
The article ultimately discusses the use of a British technique designed to be more open-ended and less judgmental in nature than the techniques used in the U.S.
It is a fascinating topic for anyone who wants to clinically study the psychology behind police work and behind a person confessing.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is an attorney licensed to practice in Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. Communications sent through this forum are not privileged and do not create an attorney-client relationship. For any specific legal situation you should consult an attorney directly.