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This white paper examines how interrogation tactics, influential factors, and the phenomenology of innocence lead to false confessions. It concludes with strong recommendations for reforming the interrogative process.
In recent years, post-conviction DNA tests and subsequent exonerations have established that faulty forensic science, flawed eyewitness/ informant testimonies, and false confessions have led to wrongful convictions. Adding to the problem is the fact that the actual rate of false confessions cannot be determined, as neither governmental nor private organizations keep track of such data.
In the paper, the authors examine past and present interrogation techniques in America. They describe "third degree" practices, used from the 19th century to the 1930s, where police employed physical and psychological tortures to coerce confessions from suspects. Today, interrogators use the "Reid technique," where the suspect is isolated in a small space and subjected to a nine-step interrogatory process. The psychological stress induced by isolation and a prolonged interrogation process are situational factors that often contribute to higher rates of false confessions
In recent years, the American legal system instituted the Miranda Rights process to decrease the rate of false confessions. However, the process is not without its flaws. For example, vulnerable suspect populations such as adolescents and persons with disabilities often misjudge their accessibility to legal counsel and misunderstand the implications of waiving their rights.
The authors next explore how courts handle confessions. Judicial efforts to curb wrongful convictions have resulted in the institution of two sets of legal rules: corroboration rules (where death or injury must be proven) and the voluntariness rules (where involuntary confessions obtained through torture must be rejected). The corroboration rule was eventually replaced by the trustworthiness rule, where only the confession (not the crime) needed to be corroborated. These rules are not without their flaws, as courts often used arbitrary means to decide whether a confession was voluntary or otherwise.
Interrogation tactics also contribute to high incidences of false confessions. For example, investigators sometimes use maximization techniques, where the futility of denial is stressed, to pressure suspects into a confession. Others use minimization tactics, where they normalize the crime and promise leniency in sentencing. Still others use the "false evidence" ploy, a deception to induce confessions.
In contrast to the United States, confession evidence and interrogations are strictly regulated in England and Wales under the PACE Act of 1984. There, vulnerable suspects such as juveniles and mentally-disabled adults are protected by the "fitness to be interviewed" provision in the 2003 Codes of Practice.
The authors document three types of false confessions: voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalized. Voluntary confessors act of their own free will, compliant confessors act according to what they perceive are the expectations of interrogators, and internalized confessors (susceptible to pressure) fabricate false memories of their guilt. Still others who believe in the strength of their innocence to acquit them are led to make false confessions. The authors call this the "phenomenology of innocence."
False confessions can have unintended and dangerous consequences in the courtroom. They may taint the judgment and assessments of juries, judges, eyewitnesses, and forensic experts. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that it is almost impossible to determine the validity or truth of a confession.
Thus, to decrease the incidences of false confessions, the authors recommend recording all interrogations, changing the American interrogative process from an adversarial, confrontational one to an investigative one, imposing time limits on interrogations, re-examining the "false evidence" ploy, recalibrating minimization tactics, and instituting measures to protect vulnerable suspect populations.