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False Confessions in Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

Stories involving false confessions can be emotional and moving, as they appeal to our innate desire for justice. As such, stories of false confessions can be powerful tools in books, films, and televisions shows. The way that a false confession is framed, and the context in which it is introduced to consumers (whether as readers or viewers) makes a big difference in how a false confession will be perceived.

In fictional stories in print or on screen, typically the viewer (or reader) has some sense of a person’s true innocence or guilt. In a television show, the viewer may have already seen a clip of the crime with the true criminal. Other musical or visual cues may also give viewers clues as to the true guilt or innocence of an individual offering a confession to a crime. Because viewers know, or will know, the true identity of the person who committed the crime in question, the use of an interrogation or a false confession (or both) can be used to demonstrate the moral character of the confessor. In exactly the same way, the use of a false confession in a fictional story can be used to demonstrate the morality of a police officer or even a whole police department. For example, a scene depicting the interrogation of a suspect that viewers know is not guilty may be used to demonstrate the use of immoral, coercive interrogation techniques by television detectives.

In nonfiction, the exploration of false confessions is often used to demonstrate the fallibility of the justice system. Because the idea that an innocent person would confess falsely to a crime that they did not commit seems incredibly counterintuitive to the average person, in-depth explorations (whether in documentaries, podcast series, newspaper or magazine expose, etc.) of the process by which false confessions can happen can be instrumental in helping people understand the reality of the phenomenon. The way a case or a confession is framed in the media and understood in popular culture also impacts our social construction of that person’s guilt or innocence.

Keywords: false confessions, popular culture, innocence, coercion, justice

False Confessions in Popular Culture

Every so often, a story about false confessions such as one presented in the 2015 American Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, captivates audiences and brings renewed attention to the problem of false confessions in the American justice system. The focus on false confessions in television, film, and the media is nothing new. This miscarriage of justice captivates and infuriates us. We empathize with the fictional father who falsely confesses to a crime to cover for his beloved daughter. We anger at the overzealous police officer who coerces a young and scared teenager to say that he committed a crime for which he is actually innocent. We petition and crowdsource funding to support the legal reconsideration of cases when new evidence suggests that an innocent person may have falsely confessed to a crime. Modern fictional television shows, ranging from Game of Thrones to Criminal Minds, have included false confessions in their plots. This article will explore how false confessions are portrayed in popular culture, through both fictional and non-fictional avenues, and will analyze the extent to which the popular portrayal of false confessions reflects our current scientific knowledge about the reality of false confessions.

Fictional False Confessions in Popular Culture

Shows focusing on law, order, and the justice system abound on primetime television. Courtroom dramas are able to run season after season, in part because they are easy and inexpensive to produce (Mezey & Niles, 2005). In these shows, and even in shows that are not so narrowly focused on the justice system, an occasional plot line will revolve around an innocent character falsely confessing to a crime that he or she did not commit. The way that a false confession is portrayed in fictional television shows or movies often depends on the perspective from which viewers are introduced to the case. When the show focuses on law enforcement, for example, the focus is less on the decision-making of the person who offers the false confession and more on the processes and abilities of the investigators who are supposed to accurately solve crimes and uncover truth. When the focus of a show is less explicitly focused on the justice system, there is a bit more room to romanticize the notion of a false confession.

Voluntary False Confessions

When depicted in fictional accounts, false confessions are often portrayed as voluntary and heroic. Sometimes the hero is portrayed as a martyr, knowingly taking the fall to prevent the conviction and incarceration of a loved one. For example, in a 2013 episode of Dallas called “False Confessions,” viewers are able to watch as a character named Ann shoots and wounds Harris. Immediately after the shooting, another character, Bobby, asks Ann what she has done, indicating that he also knows that she is the one who committed the crime. As the scene unfolds, emergency responders and police arrive, and Bobby immediately falsely confesses to the police in an attempt to keep them from questioning Ann. In this instance, justice prevails, as the true shooter is revealed in the following week’s episode. Along the same lines, in a 2011 episode of the HBO hit series Game of Thrones called “You Win or You Die” (Season 1, Episode 7), Eddard “Ned” Stark falsely confesses to treason to protect his daughters. The ultimate martyr, he is publicly executed for the alleged crime following his confession. In these examples, the protagonists give false confessions and are able to maintain their status as “good guys” to viewers. These shows demonstrate the imagined perspective of the confessor. Importantly, in most situations in which a protagonist voluntarily offers a false confession for a crime they did not commit, they do so with a clear understanding of the consequences of what they are doing. This is usually demonstrated by a justification for doing so that is understood by the viewers.

In reality, voluntary false confessions made knowingly to protect loved ones are rare but not unheard of. Some of these cases capture the public attention. For example, it has been reported that Michelle Bynom, a Mississippi woman implicated in the 1999 murder of her abusive husband, Edward Bynom Sr., offered a false confession to arranging a murder-for-hire in an attempt to protect her son, Edward Bynom Jr. According to court documents, Michelle Bynom, hospitalized for pneumonia at the time of his murder, was questioned by a local sheriff who said, “Don’t leave [Edward Jr.] hanging out there biting the big ‘ole bullet’” (Bynom v. Mississippi, 2000). Medicated, she offered a false confession and was taken directly to court, still in her hospital gown. Despite evidence of her innocence, including subsequent confessions by her son, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. As her scheduled execution date neared, this case captured a great deal of national attention, thanks in part to a piece in The Atlantic and extensive coverage through other media outlets, including social media. The decision in her case was ultimately reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court just days before her scheduled execution. While knowingly offering a false confession is romanticized and perpetuated as act of nobility in the movies and on television, as demonstrated in Bynom’s case, the reality of knowingly offering a false confession is much more complex.

Law Enforcement’s Role in False Confessions as Portrayed Onscreen

When a film or television show takes on the perspective of law enforcement and considers the role that investigators may play in eliciting a false confession, the portrayal of such confessions can demonstrate more range and give viewers other angles to consider. Because the idea of a false confession registers as profoundly unjust to viewers, it can be a powerful tool for television and film producers trying to portray law enforcement as either deviant or moral.

Sometimes, law enforcement officers are portrayed as knowingly deviant in terms of eliciting false confessions. Consider a scene from the Argentinian crime drama, El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Your Eyes), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010. The plot features the rape and murder of a woman, and detectives assigned to the case promise her widower that they will do everything they can to bring her killer to justice. However, before they can begin their investigation, a rival investigator named Romano attempts to show them up by having police beat a false confession out of two innocent construction workers, who are arrested and incarcerated after the interrogation. This plot line serves two purposes. First, by showing that Romano is deviant and resorts to immoral policing practices, viewers can conclude that our protagonist detectives are of sound moral character in contrast. Second, it demonstrates that simply attaining a confession is not good enough. The plot demands the identification of the true murderer.

Importantly, while in cinema the offering of a false confession is often included as a plot line and subsequently corrected with the identification to the true culprit, research shows that once a suspect offers a false confession, that confession is the most powerful tool of proving guilt in the courtroom (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). A false confession sets in motion the almost irrefutable belief in a suspect’s guilt among courtroom actors, often even including the suspect’s own lawyer (Johnson, 1997).

Along the same lines, in the final series episode of The Wire, “-30-” (Season 5, Episode 10), Detective McNulty correctly identifies a mentally ill homeless character (he is never named in the series) as the killer of two individuals. Under pressure to solve four other area murders, Bill Rawls, then the superintendent of the state police, puts pressure on Detective McNulty to elicit a false confession from the homeless man for the other four murders so they can be closed. McNulty, obviously facing a dilemma between obeying his superior or pursuing the truth, makes the decision to defy Superintendent Rawls and refuses to pursue additional unjust murder charges on the man. This scene perpetuates the belief that police officers may knowingly pursue false confessions, either to end an investigation or to increase their overall number of “solved” crimes. Though undoubtedly an invigorating plot thickener, there is little no evidence in the scientific literature that this is reason for false confessions made in reality. While officers may use certain interrogation techniques that may cause innocent suspects to confess to crimes they did not commit, most of the time the officer actually first determines, erroneously, that the person is guilty (Leo, 2009).

Demonstrating the discretion that law enforcement officers have in terms of validating false confessions, in an earlier episode of The Wire (Season 1, Episode 13) called “Sentencing,” a character named Roland “Wee-bey” Brice confesses to several murders, some of which he did not commit, to protect the leaders in a criminal network that he is involved with. The episode shows Detectives Bunk and McNulty discussing the confession of one murder, which they know to be false, and demonstrates their moral struggle to knowingly accept a false confession. This scene portrays some of the discretion afforded to actors in the criminal justice system and demonstrates the difficulty of navigating ethically in a justice system when there is pressure to solve cases. For viewers, this situation also highlights a reality of false confessions. As noted in the scholarly literature, a serious fundamental problem with false confessions is that they allow the true guilty party to go free (Costanzo & Costanzo, 2014).

Other shows focusing on law and law enforcement portray police officers more simply, often as righteous pursuers of justice, who would never, in good conscience, knowingly accept a false confession. For example, in the 2013 episode of Criminal Minds called “Strange Fruit” (Season 9, Episode 9), detectives determine through the course of the episode that a confession made by an individual at the beginning of the episode is actually untrue, and they make it their mission to find the true criminal. This episode demonstrates that justice is not served the moment an individual confesses to a crime. Indeed, if the correct individual has not been charged, justice has not been met. Yet sometimes television shows portray the reality that false confessions can follow certain interrogation techniques. For example, in a 2012 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit called “Justice Served” (Season 17, Episode 13), Detective Olivia Benson is distraught when she realizes that, without realizing it, she had coerced an innocent suspect to falsely confess to a rape he did not commit after a grueling nine-hour interrogation. The episode shows her focused search for the true rapist, who is ultimately found, and justice is served, as the judge declares the wrongfully convicted individual a free man.

Though dramatized, this is a depiction of the reality for some detectives. A 2013 podcast episode of National Public Radio’s (NPR) This American Life (Episode 507) focused on a real example much like this. Former Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department detective Jim Trainum discussed a case he had worked on in 1994, in which he obtained a confession of robbery and felony murder from suspect Kim Crafton following a 17-hour interrogation. Later, after reviewing the logs from the homeless shelter Crafton had been living in, he realized that she couldn’t have committed the crime. She was exonerated and released from prison after serving ten months of her sentence, but her record was never expunged and she lost access to the homeless shelter she had been living in. The NPR segment reignited public interest in her case, even resulting in a civil lawsuit against the city of Washington DC for Crafton’s wrongful imprisonment. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations had passed and the case was ultimately dropped. Though well intentioned during questioning, detective Trainum reflects during the NPR segment about how he unintentionally coerced her to confess.

Impact of Fictional False Confessions in Popular Culture

While it is important that consumers of books, podcasts, plays, television shows, and films portraying false confessions can experience them from multiple perspectives, including that of the confessor and that of law enforcement, it is important to remember that in all of the examples, the situations are included for the purpose of entertainment. Legal dramas account for a significant proportion of drama programming available on major networks, and yet the public is generally unconcerned with how accurately the legal system is portrayed in these shows (Mezey & Niles, 2005).

A reader or viewer’s experiences with false confessions in print or onscreen have an important difference from how we might process confessions in real life, because usually, when a false confession is offered in literature or onscreen, we already know (or soon will know) the truth about that person’s guilt or innocence. That knowledge frames the way we experience the confession in the context of the larger plot. An aggressive, lengthy police interrogation may be seen as heroic if we know that the detectives are questioning the correct suspect. Those same tactics used by an officer on an innocent suspect, however, might seem unjust and disproportionately harsh. Similarly, if we already have knowledge that a police officer onscreen is corrupt, we might anticipate the use of coercive interrogation techniques and interpret them as unethical. In other words, we can be manipulated to perceive the same police actions as either moral and heroic or immoral and deviant. Whether explored from the perspective of the confessor or law enforcement, false confessions in popular culture are often used to elicit an emotional reaction from viewers and readers.

Non-Fictional False Confessions in Popular Culture

Perhaps because these instances demonstrate the fallibility of our justice system, true stories of false confessions often capture the public attention, generating a great amount of press, interest, and coverage in popular culture. In the United States and Italy, the 2007 murder confession given by Amanda Knox after four days of interrogation captured the attention of the public. The details surrounding her case, in which she was twice convicted and twice acquitted before being exonerated by Italy’s highest court, are explored in a 2016 Netflix documentary called Amanda Knox.

History demonstrates hundreds of examples of well-known cases involving false confessions from countries around the world, from ancient times to modern times. Due to differences in police culture and policy in different jurisdictions and countries, the reasons for the elicitation of false confessions can differ, as can responses to those who have been wrongfully convicted.

Although there are hundreds of examples of known false confessions around the world, this article highlights one such case that has generated significant media attention, resulting in documentaries and extensive coverage by television and printed news sources, and explores how cases involving false confessions are framed in the media and how that impacts our understanding of crime and justice.

The Central Park Five

One of the most notorious cases involving false confessions in the United States was explored in The Central Park Five, a documentary by Burns, Burns, and McMahon (2012). This film, based on the research conducted by Sarah Burns for her book, also titled The Central Park Five (2012) demonstrated in detail the processes that encouraged five innocent young men to falsely confess to being involved in a brutal rape and assault. Public perception of the young men who falsely confessed has changed greatly as the public’s understanding of the case has evolved, offering insight into how the media impacts our perceptions of criminal evidence.

On the night of April 19, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili went for a jog in New York City’s Central Park. At some point during her run, she was attacked, raped, and brutally beaten before being left for dead. Barely clinging to life, she was discovered early the next morning by passersby who assisted in getting her to a hospital. She was so badly injured that she remained in a coma for 12 days after the attack, and when she came to, she could not remember any details about the incident whatsoever (Stratton, 2015). Immediately after learning about the case, and before Meili had even woken up, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) detectives began a focused investigation to identify the attacker.

From the beginning, there was huge media attention to this case. For a number of reasons, including the fact that the victim was white and middle class and that New York City was contending with a spike in violent crime, this incident was, as described in the New York Times, “one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s” (Farber, 1990). Some of the headlines describing the case included NIGHTMARE IN CENTRAL PARK, Central Park Horror: Wolf Pack’s Prey, Teen Wolfpack Beats and Rapes Wall Street Exec on Jogging Path, and Rape Suspect’s Jailhouse Boast: “It was Fun” (Didion, 1991). The public wanted answers.

The initial story patched together by police and prosecutors was that the attack was carried out by a group of teenage boys, part of a larger pack of approximately 30 boys who had been in the park that night causing disturbances. About 25 teenagers were brought in for questioning and eight were held in custody for the purposes of interrogation. Ultimately six teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 16, were indicted. Five of these youth, “the Central Park five,” were charged following intensive interrogation, in which they were coerced to offer confessions. These five teenagers were 14-year-old Kevin Richardson, 15-year-old Raymond Santana, 15-year old Yusef Salaam, 15-year-old Anton McCray, and 16-year-old Kharey Wise. All of them had been in Central Park that night, and some have admitted to involvement in other, less significant delinquency that night, but none indicated in their initial police interviews that they had anything to do with the attack of Trisha Meili, and in fact, many of them learned of the attack for the first time during their interrogations. However, under the pressure of various threats (i.e., that another one of the boys had already implicated them) and promises (i.e., that they could go home if they just admitted to their involvement in the crime) made by the police during interrogation, these five boys gave statements implicating themselves and each other in the attack (Weiss & Watson, 2013).

Despite the fact that none of the boys confessed to the actual rape, nor did they ever agree on the identity of the rapist, despite glaring inconsistencies within their testimonies, despite a lack of any physical evidence or eyewitness testimony, after offering these false confessions, all five of the boys were found guilty and sentenced to periods of incarceration ranging from 5 to 15 years. Their fates sealed, the case was considered closed until 2002, when a convicted murderer and rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed that he had carried out the 1989 rape of Meili and he had acted alone. Indeed, his DNA matched a sample found at the scene of the crime. With the new evidence placing Reyes at the scene of the crime, the case was reopened and the initial investigation was examined again. Soon thereafter, in 2002, the New York Supreme Court, recognizing that the boys’ testimony was inconsistent with each other’s and with the new, undeniable physical evidence, vacated the convictions of the Central Park Five.

It was at this point that the general public, for the first time, really understood that the men had been wrongfully convicted more than a decade earlier after being coerced to offer false confessions. Countless articles, books, television segments, and documentaries have explored what exactly transpired in the interrogation rooms in 1989 that resulted in these false confessions. One such film that offers an especially detailed account is The Central Park Five (Burns et al., 2012). In particular, this documentary demonstrates what is well established in the scientific literature: youth are vulnerable to coercion to making false confessions (Kassin, 2015; Leo, 2009). An exploration of this phenomenon is also offered in Sarah Burn’s book, The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2012).

Impact of Non-Fiction False Confessions in Popular Culture

As the Central Park Five case received so much media attention from beginning to end, it is also a useful case study in the social construction of guilt or innocence. An analysis by Stratton (2015) reveals that narratives of this case in the media shifted significantly during the 25 years since the attack occurred. Stratton’s analysis shows that coverage of the case in the New York Times shifted from first portraying the boys as the accused, to the offenders, to the punished, to, finally, the wrongfully convicted. The media coverage, Stratton argued, played an important role in how the public perceived the five men over time. Stratton concludes that we must be mindful of the impact of the media on public narratives and that we must be aware of how the media’s construction of guilt or innocence can potentially damage the innocent (Stratton, 2015).

The opposite has also been argued. Although it is undeniable that false confessions have occurred and continue to occur in the United States, for reasons discussed in the literature review below, we do not have evidence about the frequency of their occurrence and therefore do not have reason to believe that they happen with great regularity. Indeed, as argued by Marquis (2005), it is not news how many airplanes land safely each day. Similarly, when the justice system operates the way it is intended, it is not news. It is in the anomaly cases that a great deal of public interest occurs. Of paramount interest are the cases involving wrongful convictions, a significant proportion of which are caused, at least in part, by false confessions (Trotter, 2003). As of 2016, of the 343 defendants who are known to have been wrongfully convicted in the United States, nearly a third (n = 96, 28%) were convicted after giving false confessions (Innocence Project, 2016). These individuals were exonerated only when DNA evidence proved their innocence.

Beyond the Central Park Five, there have been other instances of substantial mainstream coverage of cases in which a person’s conviction hinged on a confession that they have since maintained was false. One such case, that of Michelle Byrom (discussed above), was picked up by numerous local and national news sources, and knowledge of the case spread quickly. Whether her ultimate exoneration was a result of the last minute surge of attention to her case is not known, but even if coverage of her case in popular culture did not directly correlate with her exoneration, the extensive coverage of her case did renew the public interest in (and outrage to) the issue of false confessions.

Another notorious case involving false confessions is known in popular culture as the “Norfolk Four” case. This case, in which four men (current and former members of the U.S. Navy) were charged with the rape and murder of a woman in Norfolk, Virgina in 1997, received a great deal of attention in popular culture as well. A PBS FRONTLINE documentary, produced by Ofra Bikel (2010), False Confessions explored how the various interrogation tactics used against these men led them each to offer false confessions that ultimately linked them to the crime, although there was no other evidence.

Documentarian Bikel was no stranger to exploring false confessions in her films and had seen that the potential impact of her work could go beyond simply educating the general public about this phenomenon. A 2004 documentary that she produced, also for FRONTLINE, called The Plea (Bikel, 2004), highlighted a case in which Charles Gampero offered a false confession for a murder that he did not commit under tremendous pressure from the judge to plead guilty. Filmmaker Bikel included this story in her documentary to demonstrate to the masses the injustice that could occur in the process of plea-bargaining. But she also sent the interviews she had conducted with Gampero to his parole board. While there is no evidence that this footage weighed in to his parole board’s decision, he was released on parole in 2004. His mother was quoted in the New York Times, crediting the coverage of his case in the documentary with his release from prison, because it brought so much attention to his case (Salamon, 2005). It is completely possible that media coverage of cases involving false confessions, and the viral interest and outrage they may spark, can actually impact the ultimate outcomes of these cases and bring justice to wrongfully convicted individuals.

Discussion of the Literature

Perhaps contributing to the fascination with false confessions in popular culture, the idea that an innocent individual would knowingly confess to a crime that he or she did not commit is incredibly counterintuitive. Yet, false confessions are consistently one of the most common causes of error in the American legal system (Leo, 2009). There is evidence that false confessions have occurred throughout history in various countries and cultures, and in various settings beyond criminal justice, including in the military and in corporate settings (Kassin, 2015; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004). In recent years, the media has helped increase attention to high-profile cases involving false confessions by individuals who were found guilty, incarcerated, and then subsequently exonerated due to DNA evidence (Leo, 2009). While it is not possible to estimate how often false confessions occur (Costanzo & Costanzo, 2014), research can provide some insight into types of false confessions, current practices that may encourage and support false confessions in the criminal justice system, risk factors for false confessions, and suggested reforms to reduce the likelihood of individuals confessing to and facing punishment for crimes that they did not commit.

Types of False Confessions

Reasons for giving false confessions vary widely. An understanding of the dynamics that can lead to a false confession are important to implementing policies that can prevent this miscarriage of justice from occurring in the first place. Beginning with Kassin and Wrightsman (1985), there have been several frameworks proposed to classify types of false confessions. Their original framework has been refined over time by several other researchers, but their core idea, that there are three distinct psychological processes that occur in the elicitation of false confessions, is widely agreed upon by other researchers as well (Gudjonsson, 2003; Ofshe & Leo, 1997a).

One type of false confession is a voluntary false confession, originally defined as a voluntary false confession that is offered without any police interrogation or interference (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). Most voluntary false confessions are rooted in an underlying psychological disorder, but other explanations for the voluntary false confession of crime include the desire for fame or notoriety, to provide an alibi for a different crime, or a desire to aid or protect the person who actually committed the crime (Leo, 2009; Wagenaar, van Koppen, & Crombag, 1993). Several high-profile crimes committed in recent history have elicited a large number of voluntary false confessions, including the Lindbergh kidnapping of the 1930s, the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, and Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder in 1994. Law enforcement officers tend to be more skeptical of voluntary false confessions than false confessions made during police interrogation or questioning (Gudjonsson, 2003).

A second type of false confession, a compliant false confession, occurs when knowingly innocent people shift from maintaining their innocence to confessing to a criminal act in an act of behavioral compliance (Kassin, 2015). Motivations to give a compliant false confession include to escape the stress of a harsh police interrogation or because they are led to believe that an admission of guilt will lead to a less severe punishment than they might face if they continue to maintain their innocence. Ofshe and Leo (1997b) have found that psychologically coercive interrogation techniques, including implied or explicit threats or promises, are the root cause of most compliant false confessions. A FRONTLINE film by PBS called The Plea (2004) demonstrated one such case, in which Charles Gampero, then 20 years old, was charged with a murder he did not commit in 1994. Though he planned to maintain his innocence in trial, the judge in this case, Frank Egitto, threatened him with a much more significant sentence of incarceration if he was found guilty by the jury, causing him to knowingly offer a false confession to the crime (Bikel, 2004). The most common type of false confession is the compliant false confession (Leo, 2009).

Finally, a third type of false confession is the persuaded false confession, which occurs when, during a police interrogation, an innocent suspect begins to doubt his own memory and becomes persuaded that he did in fact commit the crime, despite having no memory of it. Leo (2009) explains the process by which this can occur. First the interrogator makes the suspect doubt his innocence. Next, the interrogator offers the suspect a scientifically valid reason why he may not remember committing the crime, typically a version of a “repressed memory” theory. If he finds a theory of his lack of memory credible, the suspect might be persuaded to offer a false confession. Although this theory seems far-fetched, research on non-offending populations finds that suggestive interviewing techniques readily generate false memories of committing crimes, which can lead to and support false confessions (Shaw & Porter, 2015).

Risk Factors for False Confessions

Some people demonstrate greater resistance to succumbing to pressure to produce a false confession than others. There is strong consensus in the existing literature that three main vulnerabilities may increase a person’s likelihood of falsely admitting guilt to a crime they did not commit: youth, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and psychological disorders (Kassin, 2015).

We recognize from developmental neuropsychology that the pre-frontal cortex, which executes the decision making, planning, and personality expression, is not fully formed in juvenile brains, which makes young people malleable and at risk for falsely confessing to crimes they did not commit (Kassin, Meissner, & Norwick, 2005). Like the five young men initially convicted of the rape and murder of the Central Park jogger in 1989, young people are more likely to make decisions based on immediate consequences (i.e., ending a stressful interrogation, the promise of going home) at the expense of thinking about long-term decisions (Redlich, 2007). The diminished capacity of youth was recognized by the Supreme Court in the case of Roper v. Simmons, yet this recognition has not yet resulted in a policy shift toward changing the interrogation process for youth. Within a sample of 125 cases with known false confessions, youth comprised almost a third (32%) of the false confessors (Drizin & Leo, 2004).

Intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) involve impairments of the mental ability of individuals that impact their functioning in everyday tasks, including cognitive and social functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). According to diagnostic guidelines suggested by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), intellectual disability can be diagnosed when a person has an IQ score of about 70 or below. People with IDD tend to be more likely to acquiesce under pressure or due to an inability to understand complex lines of questioning (Finlay & Lyons, 2002). Additionally, many individuals with IDD demonstrate an eagerness to agree with figures of authority (Perlman, Ericson, Esses, & Isaacs, 1994). It has also been suggested that they may be more likely to trust an interrogator’s claim that they will provide help (Costanzo & Costanzo, 2014). Others may lack an understanding of their legal rights, or quite simply, the potential consequences of a false confession (Clare & Gudjonsson, 1995). Each of these factors increases their susceptibility to making a false confession.

Similarly, suspects with various mental illness diagnoses may have difficulty understanding the long-term consequences of making a false confession. Further, those with memory impairments are less likely to trust their own recollections, which may make them susceptible to making a persuaded false confession (Costanzo & Costanzo, 2014).

Current Practices That Can Cause False Confessions

Leo (2009) posits that there are three sequential errors that may occur during a police interrogation that can lead to a false confession. He identifies these as: (a) the misclassification error, (b) the coercion error, and (c) the contamination error. First, the investigator misclassifies an innocent person as guilty. Next, they subject him to an interrogation that coerces him to confess to the crime that he did not commit. Finally, they pressure the subject to provide context to support the admission of guilt, often by providing details about the crime that the person did not already know.

Suggested Reforms to Prevent False Confessions

Unfortunately, research finds that both police and ordinary citizens have difficulty recognizing a false confession (Kassin, Meissner, & Norwick, 2005). Therefore, we cannot expect a jury panel to recognize a false confession. It is essential to consider ways to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

The most important safeguard against false confessions is the video recording of all suspect interviews and interrogations (Kassin, 2015; Johnson, 1997). As of 2014, 17 states required the recording of interrogations in major felony investigations (Kassin, 2015). An additional safeguard suggested by Kassin is the use of expert testimony, which can provide at trial some insight about the vulnerability of some people to give false confessions. Some experts also propose a set of reforms on the interrogation itself. For example, some have suggested that time limits on interrogations, such as a limit of three hours, may decrease the likelihood of false confessions that innocent suspects may give due to the fatigue and stress caused by long, grueling interrogation sessions (Costanzo & Costanzo, 2014). This idea is understandably controversial, as many law enforcement officers with interrogation experience have found it to be useful in eliciting confessions by the truly guilty. Finally, it has been suggested that eyewitnesses and crime lab examiners should be blind to the status of a confession, so that their findings are not biased (Kassin, 2015).

Further Reading

Bikel, O. (Producer and Director). (2010). False confessions. PBS FRONTLINE.Find this resource:

    Burns, K., Burns, S., & McMahon, D. (Producers and Directors). (2012). The Central Park Five. PBS FRONTLINE.Find this resource:

      Clare, I. C. H., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (1995). The vulnerability of suspects with intellectual disabilities during police interviews: A review and experimental study of decision making. Mental Handicap Research, 8(2), 110–128.Find this resource:

        Feld, B. (2013). Kids, cops, and confessions: Inside the interrogation room. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

          Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook. Chichester, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons.Find this resource:

            Innocence Project. (2016). All cases.

            Kassin, S. M. (2012). Why confessions trump innocence. American Psychologist, 67(6), 431–445.Find this resource:

              Kassin, S. M. (2015). The social psychology of false confessions. Social Issues and Policy Review, 9(1), 25–51.Find this resource:

                Kassin, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1985). Confession evidence. In S. Kassin & L. Wrightsman (Eds.), The psychology of evidence and trial procedure. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                  Leo, R. A. (2009). False confessions: Causes, consequences, and implications. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 37, 332–343.Find this resource:

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