Priming and False Confessions

False confessions are a phenomenon many find mystifying. Although it seems hard to believe a person would voluntarily make a false confession, it occurs with such disturbing regularity that courts must weigh the circumstances under which any confession was obtained when deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused.

False confessions are a phenomenon many find mystifying. Although it seems hard to believe a person would voluntarily make a false confession, it occurs with such disturbing regularity that courts must weigh the circumstances under which any confession was obtained when deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused. Considering how confessions are often obtained, it doesn’t take a master’s degree to see they may be susceptible to question. However, judges and juries give much weight to confessions, often convicting solely on the basis of one, even in the absence of corroborating evidence. Because of their weight in the courtroom, coercion is often used to elicit confessions through a variety of strategies.

Methods employed by interrogators can often lead to false confessions. Suspects are isolated in bare, soundproofed rooms without distractions. Interviewers usually begin in an affable manner, suggesting the questioning is merely exploratory. Suspects are of course read their Miranda rights, but this is usually downplayed as merely a formality.

The goal of interrogation is to first convince suspects the evidence against them is decisive and that there’s no way out of the situation. After suspects have broken down and accepted the hopelessness of their situation, interrogators will offer the glimmer of hope a confession will lead to a better outcome, both legally and psychologically. Suspects are primed to confess after prolonged interrogation, physical exhaustion, fear, and stress have induced a suggestive state.

There are three types of false confessions. The first is the voluntary confession, in which the person voluntarily comes forward admitting to a crime to gain recognition or because of diminished capacity. The coerced-compliant admission is when a person confesses in order to appease an interrogator. In cases of coercive-internalized confession, the suspect has become convinced he is actually guilty and may even fabricate memories of the crime.

Some factors that affect the possibility of false confession are the subject’s level of suggestibility, intoxication, diminished capacity, and intelligence. Sleep deprivation, prolonged interrogation, and fear also contribute. Experimental studies have proven people will admit to crimes of which they are innocent when told there are witnesses who will testify to their guilt.

Recent headlines highlighted the story of the so-called West Memphis Three who were convicted of the 1994 murders of three young boys. Jessie Misskelley Jr., one of the accused, confessed after a lengthy interrogation, during which time he implicated two other teens in the crime. Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, endured a 12-hour interrogation of which only about 45 minutes were recorded. Although a minor at the time, his parents were not present during questioning.

Misskelley immediately recanted, claiming coercion, fear, and fatigue, but his confession was upheld against him at trial. Misskelley and Jason Baldwin received life sentences, and Damien Echols received the death penalty, although no physical evidence linked them to the crime and the confession was factually inconsistent with the crime scene. DNA evidence later implicated the stepfather of one of the victims. After over 18 years in prison, the three were allowed to plead guilty to the crime while still maintaining their innocence via the Alford plea and set free.

Unfortunately, juries often find it difficult to discount an admission of guilt even if they’re informed it was given under duress. 25 percent of all DNA-exonerated cases overturned convictions reached on the basis of false confessions. Instances of conviction based on false confession could be reduced by recording interviews, by prohibiting high-pressure interrogation techniques, and allowing juries to hear testimony regarding the psychological factors that lead to false admission of guilt. More weight should also be given to DNA and physical evidence, especially in cases where suspects’ lives are on the line.

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