In ALG Blog
Photo: 12: 365 Interrogation by mcfarlandmo (CC BY 2.0)

The justice system is a slow responder to the human roadkill of false confessions.

In 1983, two mentally disabled half-brothers, aged 15 and 19, were convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Georgia. They falsely confessed to the crime following a questionable police interrogation. In September 2014, after spending over 30 years on death row, both were exonerated by DNA evidence and released.

The police never investigated the actual murderer, a convicted sex offender living on the same block as the victim. In 1990, five boys, aged 14 to 16, were convicted of raping and beating an investment banker, “the Central Park jogger,” in New York. In 2002, all were exonerated by DNA evidence and the city, despite denying any wrongdoing, paid out a $41 million settlement this year. Like the two half-brothers in Georgia, the “Central Park Five” also falsely confessed to police.

To people never subjected to a skilled police interrogation, the idea of falsely confessing to a crime is unfathomable. Indeed, before DNA testing – the most powerful tool for exonerating the wrongfully convicted – there was a popular belief that false confessions didn’t happen, or happened with negligible frequency. But evidence shows that false confessions occur with disturbing regularity: more than 25% of people who are wrongfully convicted have made false, incriminating statements to police. As might be expected, a disproportionate number of those who falsely confess are young or mentally disabled.

One cause of false confessions is the widespread use of the “Reid technique” by police interrogators.  An officer using the Reid technique first lies to the suspect, telling him that the evidence is overwhelming and there is no doubt as to his guilt.  The only purpose of the questioning, the suspect is told, is to find out why he committed the crime.  The officer then suggests explanations that will result in leniency. This method has a long history of producing false confessions,[1] dating back to the 1955 interrogation on which John Reid staked his reputation. John Reid was heralded for being able to extract a confession where others had failed, but the confession he extracted later proved to be false. Darrell Parker, an innocent man, spent 15 years in prison as a result.

False confessions and the resulting wrongful convictions represent a personal injustice. But there is a broader social cost too. One study which examined 85 wrongful convictions in the state of Illinois – 33 of which were the result of false confessions – projected the total bill to taxpayers resulting from wrongful convictions to be in excess of $300 million including incarceration and settlement costs. Even worse, while the 85 innocent people were in jail, the actual perpetrators were on a collective crime spree that included 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults, 10 kidnappings and at least 62 other felonies. False confessions result in locking up the innocent and making the streets more dangerous, all at a huge price tag. You would think these numbers would create a sense of urgency to prevent false confessions, yet the opposite is true. There is little political will to extend protections to suspected criminals, even if they may be innocent and even though the costs of not doing so are jaw-dropping.

[1] In a controlled experiment studying the effect of the Reid technique on false confessions, students were first induced into helping an actor cheat on a test and were then questioned. When the Reid technique was used, guilty students were 35% more likely to confess and innocent students were almost 600% more likely to confess than when non-Reid questioning was used.

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