Confessions in criminal law are very convincing evidence. Research shows that many innocent individuals are often wrongly convicted and imprisoned mostly because of a false confession. A false confession is the acceptance of a crime by an innocent individual who is not responsible for the crime. Investigations show that innocent people can false confess for different reasons and in different types of false confession. Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) described three types of false confession; voluntary false confessions are when people assume responsibility for crimes they did not commit without police prompting; compliant false confessions arise from the pressures of others and most importantly, police inquiry processes; internalized confession cases are when innocent but vulnerable people do not just adhere to a confession as a result of exposure to suggestive interrogation tactics, but also internalize their guilt feelings. This essay will critically discuss the conditions under which false confessions are likely to occur with cited real cases, theory and evidence research.
According to observational studies and surveys, modern American police interrogation is a psychologically oriented process. Classical police interrogation is a multi- layered act where three processes interact. First is confrontation; in this process the interrogator accuses the suspect and strengthens the claim by presenting real or virtual evidence. The second one is minimization; in this interrogation process the interrogator creates a moderate interrogation environment and finds the crime justified and attempts to make the suspect confess. The last is isolation; in this interrogation process both the anxiety of the suspect is increased as is the desire to escape from this process (Inbau et al., 2001).
Based on the anecdotal evidence from DNA exonerations, some tactics made in the interrogation proved that there was a great deal of influence on the false confession. One of them is offering misleading information about the event and false evidence such as a sample of hair, eyewitness or a failed lie detector test in order to support their accusations. These tactics can change the actual or reported memories of observed events and can cause false confession (Loftus et al., 1978). Gudjonsson and MacKeith (1990) coined the term memory distrust syndrome and defined it as a syndrome where people create distrust of their own memories; as a result, they are more susceptible to trust the external cues and the recommendation. This syndrome occurs when the interrogator starts the interrogation process by using the tactics above. The suspect becomes doubtful, even though they are well aware that they did not commit the crime. Especially if the interrogators repeatedly reiterate their views on the crime, this causes the suspect to gradually lose confidence in his or her memories and internalize the guilt, then confess to the crime they did not commit (Milne et al., 1999).
According to Ofshe (1989) people who make false confessions tend to have the following personality traits: trust in people of authority; lack of self-esteem; and heightened suggestibility. Michael Crowe’s 14-year-old sister was stabbed to death. During long interrogations, Crowe was misled by the police by saying all the doors of the house were locked, her blood was found in his bedroom and he failed the lie-detector test. After interrogators presented the false evidence, Michael believed that he had a split personality and then he confessed by saying, “I’m not sure how I did it, all I know is that I did it” (Kassin, 1996). In 1996, Kassin and Kiechel tested this hypothesis about the confession in a lab test. University students took part in the study, which measures reaction times, and students were asked to press certain keys on the keyboard reacting to certain stimuli. The students were accused of pressing the wrong key against some stimuli and were asked to sign a confession of this crime. All the students were actually innocent rejected the accusation. In another session of the trial, researchers support their accuse against the participants with false evidence. After using the false evidence tactic, the number of innocent and guilt participants who signed confessions doubled. This demonstrated, manipulation of the evidence increased the number of students who saw themselves as culpable. Presenting false evidence and/or misinformation by police during interrogation alters individuals’ memory, beliefs and behaviors, and causes innocent individuals to make false confessions (Kassin, 2008).
The second problematic tactic is minimization. In this tactical process, the question interrogators present offers the most compelling, sympathetic and moral justification in order to minimize the crime. During the interrogation, it is suggested to the suspects that the actions were carried out accidentally, the suspicion provoked, the respect for their rights, or otherwise the suspicion is justified. Kassin and McNall (1991) evaluated the effects of minimization and explicit leniency on false confession by using the 3 different versions of the transcript of the interrogation of the central five joggers case. The result was that the suspects confessed because even if there was no clear promise to them, it is thought that the minimization process can lead suspects to think that tolerance will continue after the confession. The minimization tactic may affect a suspect’s decision to confess by altering her\his perception of the expected consequences of confession. While this technique increases the rate of false confessions on a crime, it reduces the diagnosticity of interrogation (Kassin and McNall, 1991).
The effects of these tactics on behaviors were also evaluated in a problem- solving study where thesubjects were paired with a colleague and instructed to work alone and join the other in just somecases. In a guilty situation, the colleague tried to get help for an individual problem by violating the rule of the experiment. In the innocent case, the colleague did not fulfill this desire. Later the researcher accused all the participants and tried to get confessions from some ofthe guilty and innocent participants by using the minimizing tactic, whereas on some of the participants, they promised leniency. Researchers used both tactics on some participants, and for some participants they did not use any tactic to encourage them to sign the confession. According to this research with no tactics, minimization and explicit leniency increased effectively the true confessions from the guilty as well as the false confessions from the innocent (Russano, Meissner, Narchet, & Kassin, 2005). As seen in both cases, use of the minimization tactic by the interrogator during the interrogation in order to force the accused to accept the accusation, increased the false confession by altering the suspect’s perception of the expected consequences of the crime. At the same time the number of true confessions increased by influencing the guilty participants’ perceptions of proof and feelings of guilt (Russano, Meissner, Narchet, & Kassin, 2005; Kassin and McNall 1991).
Finally, isolation interrogation process is where the interrogator removes the suspects from their environment and deprives them of sleep, food and other needs, and it is a process of inquiry that takes place in a room where physical violence and various forms of torture are practiced. Zimbardo (1967) observes that this isolation tactic increases anxiety during the interrogation. At the same
time, he also observed that the suspect’s desire to escape increased incrementally according to the length of the interrogation. The long period of fatigue and sleeplessness during the interrogation process affects the ability of the suspect to make decisions, and increases the likelihood of being influenced by the interrogator (Blagrove, 1996; Harrison & Horne, 2000). According to Gudjonsson
(2003), some people are dispositionally more malleable compared to other people, and are under higher risk of a false confession. During interrogation these people can be pushed into false beliefs by the police, and with these false beliefs they may end agreeing with the police. Looking at the 1989 Central Park jogger case, the five New York youths said they had confessed after the long interrogation process to escape from stressful situations and to avoid the punishments. Kassin (2008) stated, individuals who are prone to be anxious, delusional, depressed, and fearful, or individuals or otherwise psychologically disturbed and mentally handicapped are particularly inclined to confess under pressure. Youth is a particularly important risk factor. In order to find what makes youths vulnerable, according to developmental researchers, adolescents exhibit “judicial inadequacy” during their decision making process; this is characterized by impulsivity, immediate satisfaction and a decrease in perception capacity. The justice of young people with psychological disorders puts “double jeopardy” in the interrogation room. In the interrogation, both the atmosphere of the interrogation room and the psychological pressure of the interrogators push innocents into false confession to get rid of that atmosphere; this mostly affects those who are dispositionally more malleable and children (Owen-Kostelnik, Reppucci, & Meyer, 2006).
If any conclusion may be drawn, false confession is the acceptation of the crime by innocent people who did not commit it. According to research, the police interrogation processes and the tactics, which are in use, can be shown as the cause of false confession. As we have seen in research supporting the theories, the false evidence and misinformation used in the interrogations could cause suspects to distrust their own memories and increase the risk of making false confessions. As the research indicates, the explicit leniency and minimization of the crime by the interrogator also causes innocent people to make a false confession by altering their perception of the crime and consequences. Lastly, the isolation tactic and the psychological pressure in this process may cause the innocent to falsely confess in order to escape the interrogation atmosphere, which increases their anxiety. In order to minimize false confessions, the integration process should be changed in a way to decrease conditions that may lead to false confessions, and the interrogators may need education to recognize the situations in which false confession is likely to occur.
Clinical Psychologist B. Perim Secmen
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