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What would you do?

A police officer charges you with a crime. They bring you into the interrogation room and start to pepper you with questions. 

They start to rough you up a bit, to keep you awake and deprive you of sleep. They continue a relentless assault of detailed questions, unknowingly disclosing details throughout the entire interrogation process. 

After a 36 hours or so, you give in. The psychological pressure placed upon you during police interrogations has lead to a false confession. I know what you’re thinking: I’d never give in. According to one person who (falsely) committed to a crime, “You’ve never been in a situation so intense, and you’re naïve about your rights,” he said. “You don’t know what you’ll say to get out of that situation.”

As a reader of Farnam Street you know that our bias to view experts (authority) as more reliable overrides our perceptions and objective evaluation of the situation under which information is obtained. That is, it doesn’t matter how the police get you to say something, it’s what you say that matters.

A recent NYT article highlighted new research that shows how people who were apparently uninvolved in a crime could provide such a detailed account of what occurred, allowing prosecutors to claim that only the defendant could have committed the crime.

An article (The Substance of False Confessions, abstract below) by Professor Garrett draws on trial transcripts, recorded confessions and other background materials to show how incriminating facts got into those confessions — by police introducing important facts about the case, whether intentionally or unintentionally, during the interrogation.

From the NYT article:

The notion that such detailed confessions might be deemed voluntary because the defendants were not beaten or coerced suggests that courts should not simply look at whether confessions are voluntary, Mr. Neufeld said. “They should look at whether they are reliable.”

Professor Garrett said he was surprised by the complexity of the confessions he studied. “I expected, and think people intuitively think, that a false confession would look flimsy,” like someone saying simply, “I did it,” he said.

Instead, he said, “almost all of these confessions looked uncannily reliable,” rich in telling detail that almost inevitably had to come from the police. “I had known that in a couple of these cases, contamination could have occurred,” he said, using a term in police circles for introducing facts into the interrogation process. “I didn’t expect to see that almost all of them had been contaminated.”

Of the exonerated defendants in the Garrett study, 26 — more than half — were “mentally disabled,” under 18 at the time or both. Most were subjected to lengthy, high-pressure interrogations, and none had a lawyer present. Thirteen of them were taken to the crime scene.

Mr. Lowery’s case shows how contamination occurs. He had come under suspicion, he now believes, because he had been partying and ran his car into a parked car the night of the rape, generating a police report. Officers grilled him for more than seven hours, insisting from the start that he had committed the crime.

The psychology of this gets really interesting when you have DNA evidence that clears a defendant and yet the courts convicted them anyways. Imagine you’re the cops. The guy has confesses so you’re going to find all the evidence possible to ensure he goes away; that is, after all, your job (confirmation bias, commitment and consistency bias). According to one ex-cop in the NYT article, “You become so fixated on ‘This is the right person, this is the guilty person’ that you tend to ignore everything else.” The DA, who’s taken this high-profile case and publicly come out and said that you’re guilty is under the psychological pressures to ensure, guilty or not, that he’s blind to the truth. 

Continue Reading the NYT Article

A puzzle is raised by cases of false confessions: How could an innocent person convincingly confess to a crime? Postconviction DNA testing has now exonerated over 250 convicts, more than forty of whom falsely confessed to rapes and murders. As a result, there is a new awareness that innocent people falsely confess, often due to psychological pressure placed upon them during police interrogations. Scholars increasingly examine the psychological techniques that can cause people to falsely confess and document instances of known false confessions. This Article takes a different approach, by examining the substance of false confessions, including what was said during interrogations and how the confession statements were then litigated at trial and postconviction. Doing so sheds light on the phenomenon of confession contamination. Not only can innocent people falsely confess, but all except two of the exonerees studied were induced to deliver false confessions with surprisingly rich, detailed, and accurate information. We now know that those details could not have likely originated with these innocent people, but rather must have been disclosed to them, most likely during the interrogation process. However, our constitutional criminal procedure does not regulate the postadmission interrogation process, nor do courts evaluate the reliability of confessions. This Article outlines a series of reforms that focus on the insidious problem of contamination, particularly videotaping interrogations in their entirety, but also reframing police procedures, trial practice, and judicial review. Unless criminal procedure is reoriented towards the reliability of the substance of confessions, contamination of facts may continue to go undetected, resulting in miscarriages of justice.