Here’s Why You Are Capable Of Confessing To A Crime You Didn’t Commit

It’s near unthinkable: the idea that under certain circumstances you would ever knowingly incriminate yourself in the presence of police for a crime you did not commit. I would be willing to bet that if I asked you now, in all seriousness, do you think you are capable of ever confessing to a crime you didn’t commit, your answer would be “absolutely not”. It’s simply unthinkable, and yet it happens shockingly often. It happens to sane people, to grown adults, to normal, average citizens.

False confessions are the subject of the third part in my series about wrongful convictions called Reasonable Doubt. Previous parts:

Of the Innocence Project’s, to-date, 350 exonerees, 25% were convicted based on false confessions. Keep in mind that the Innocence Project is just one organization, whose area of expertise is DNA evidence. This is a sliver; it’s a tiny fraction of the big picture. Another organization, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, also works towards similar goals. It was founded in 1999 by Rob Warden. Warden has studied the causes of wrongful convictions and why people confess to crimes they did not commit, and he estimates that false confessions are involved in nearly half of all murder cases. Rob Warden researched and wrote True Stories of False Confessions. If no other book destroys the American justice system for you, this one will. It’s nothing short of absolutely terrifying.

It goes against all your common sense. It’s completely alien. Why would anyone confess to something they didn’t do? Especially a serious, heinous crime that could fetch you the death penalty? It makes no sense why anyone would ever do this, and yet… they simply do.

So, why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit? Here are a few of the reasons researchers have been able to pinpoint:

1. Interrogation Methods – Even when police are following protocol by the book, there are still practices used in the interrogation room that can and do lead to false confessions. Add to that the fact that when you give some people a certain amount of power over someone else, they tend to not always follow protocol down to the last letter exactly. The envelope gets pushed, lines blur and the fact that police are just human beings in blue uniforms becomes apparent.

One of the most common factors that contribute to false confessions is the duration of an interrogation. In fact, this is one of the leading reasons people confess to things they did not commit. They are held in a room with no food, no water, no bed, no comfort, for upwards of 48 hours, sometimes more. Bright lights are shining down and every few minutes an officer comes in who is certain they’ve committed the crime in question and treats them like scum; like a hardened criminal. They’re yelled at. They’re sworn at. They are not allowed to sleep. Their minds become delirious with exhaustion. They try to hold out because they know they’re innocent, but eventually, their worn out minds search for ways out of the situation. Any way out of the situation. They think, “I’ll just tell them what they want to hear and prove my innocence in court”. They sign their own confession with blurry exhaustion and the rest of their lives unfold in prison.

Featured in harcover book, The Innocents, which sits atop my coffee table, Chris Ochoa:

Coercion can also lead to a false confession. Consider the case of Eddie Joe Lloyd, who contacted police to help with the investigation of a rape and murder. During questioning, police convinced Lloyd that if he confessed to the crime in question, it would somehow help them “flush out” the real perpetrator. Lloyd, who wanted nothing more than to help, signed his confession and spent the next 17 years in prison. It wasn’t until the Innocence Project got involved and had the DNA evidence in the case tested, that Lloyd was ruled out as a possible suspect.

In the USA, it is still legal for police to lie to the men and women they are interrogating about the evidence they may or may not already have. Police will often allude to evidence they have obtained that implicates the suspect they are interrogating. Examples of this are when police lie and say that their co-suspect in the next room already told them everything and that a lesser sentence will be given if they could just do the same. Police have also been known to say they have found blood, fibres, hair or fingerprints at the scene that have already been tested and match the suspect they’re speaking with. They’ll say things like, “We already know you did it” or “We have your prints on the gun”, etc. These lies can induce a state of terror, or of absolute confusion and in some cases, suspects say what the cops want to hear, and are absolutely sure they’ll have their chance to prove their innocence in court.

Sometimes, interrogators try minimizing the crime. In the interrogation room, police will use such language as, “it’s not as bad as you think” and give the suspect reason to believe that with a confession, they will be lenient with punishment.

2. Age – Children and teenagers are more susceptible to pressure, influence and fear. Young people tend not to fully understand the law – they will confess to escape the immediate situation, thinking they can later tell the truth and be released, or they are under the assumption that they are signing something other than a confession.

Warning: this video will make you extremely angry:

The saddest thing about this video is that this is one of many. A vast majority of false confession cases involve children and teenagers:

  • The Central Park Five – all of these boys were in their mid teens at the time of their confessions. These confessions were obtained from 14, 15 and 16 year old innocent boys through coercion, lies and intimidation.
  • Jeffrey Deskovic – I have followed this man’s case and the many things he has done since his exoneration for many years now. Deskovic was coerced into making a confession when he was just 17.
  • Peter Reilly – Reilly confessed to killing his mother after lengthy interrogations led him to believe the police assertions that he had blacked out and committed the crime. He was exonerated when a state trooper came forward with an alibi for Reilly.
  • The West Memphis Three – This story was made famous when it was the subject of a much talked about documentary trilogy called Paradise Lost. The boys confessed to killing 3 younger boys when they were just 16, 17 and 18. They have still not officially been exonerated. There is someone out there who killed 3 eight-year-old boys because the law refuses to admit it’s wrongdoings.

This is just a small, small handful of the many cases in which children have confessed to heinous crimes and turned out not to be the perpetrators.

3. State of mind – As we learned last week, our minds are not always trustworthy. Many factors can make your own mind do things which may or may not be in your best interest. False confessions have been elicited from people in many different states of mind, but some states are more fruitful than others.

Fatigue – Days without sleep or proper food can make anyone delirious. Interrogations that last an excruciatingly long time have a tendency to successfully mine out confessions. These are the circumstances in a large majority of false confessions cases.

Stress – When the situation becomes too much to bear, people will break down and confess. Threats, lies and manipulation can all add to the stress factor in the interrogation setting and cause the suspect’s mind to go quickly to the “say what they want to hear” solution.

Mental illness – Johnny Lee Wilson was mentally challenged and had an IQ of 79 when he confessed to the murder of Pauline Martz. He had been under the impression he would be allowed to go home if he confessed. Ada JoAnn Taylor, who had a history of mental illness spent 20 years in prison for a rape and murder she did not commit, after confessing to it. Kasgo Lado, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was released recently after falsely confessing to a crime:

4. Police Misconduct – In false confessions cases, especially those involving children and the mentally ill, there is a pattern of police misconduct, from refusing to read the suspect his rights and not allowing him to seek counsel, all the way to out-and-out torture. While there are a great many good policemen, the idea that we should blindly trust the men and women of the police force to do exactly what they are supposed to do, even when they are under extreme pressure to find a culprit, is idiotic at the absolute best. Police are human, just like the rest of us. They are capable of making horrible mistakes, abusing their power and anything else that any other human being is capable of. For some reason, in our society, we feel we mustn’t distrust police, we must blindly respect them and never question anything they do. Unfortunately, that results in cases like this:

Accountability in the police force is not only essential for any civilized society, the absolute refusal to believe that cops could ever do anything wrong, is one of the biggest mass delusions that leads to horrendous and sickening amounts of wrongdoing. Blind respect for any profession is always unfounded.

5. Ignorance of the law – When men and women who have confessed to crimes which they did not commit are asked to explain why they confessed, many of them had similar explanations. They reason that they were sure they would have a chance later to prove their innocence. If they could just get out of the situation at hand (the interrogation) they could find a way to prove their innocence. The problem is that a confession has trumped even DNA evidence in some cases because people simply cannot believe that anyone would confess to something they didn’t do. These men, women and children who falsely confess to things they did not do are unfamiliar with the history of false confessions and wrongful convictions. They don’t believe that it could ever happen in the USA; that an innocent person could be locked up or put to death for something they didn’t do. Some suspects in interrogation don’t understand what it means to be signing your own confession, and some equate it with signing a witness statement. They are unaware, especially children and the mentally ill, of how binding that single confession will be and how it will colour all the other evidence in their case. This is why children and the mentally ill should never be interrogated without the presence of counsel. Even if they don’t ask for it.

6. Voluntary Confessions – these are confessions made without the need for interrogation. The confessor comes to the police department on his or her own and confesses to the crime. There have been many documented cases of such confessions throughout history and all over the world and they can be easily debunked. For instance, when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, over 200 innocent people confessed to the crime. In Salem, in the 1600s, women came forward, confessed to being witches and were put to death. Obsessed with details in the JonBenét Ramsey case, John Mark Karr came forward and confessed to killing the child. After careful investigation, police realized he could not have been involved. Many people came forward and confessed to the Black Dahlia murder. Examples just go on and on. People do it for notoriety, for perceived gains, because they are deranged or unwell. For the most part, voluntary confessions are treated with skepticism by police and rarely lead to a conviction without other evidence.

Many people have long viewed the confession as the ultimate form of evidence. Why would anyone but the guilty confess to some horrible crime? It’s off-putting to know that confessions are no more evidence than a vision from a dream. And yet, many people who maintain their innocence sit, rotting away in prison cells, after confessing to murders, rapes, kidnappings and robberies to end days on end of interrogations. Many of these people have contacted the Innocence Project, but, unfortunately, a lot of their cases lack the DNA evidence that could exonerate them. So, they will remain behind bars. I assure you, that though some are guilty, some are also innocent and that has two awful side effects: 1. An innocent human being is locked up 2. A guilty human being walks free, potentially committing more crimes. That means more murder victims, more sexual assault victims, more victims of theft and assault and endangerment.

Confessions must be taken with a grain of salt and jurors must be made aware of the factors that lead to false confessions. If a confession is admitted as evidence in a trial, jurors must be made aware of the circumstances surrounding it. How long did the interrogation go on? How old is the defendant? Is the defendant mentally ill or have a history of mental illness? Was the defendant intoxicated at the time of their confession? Was the suspect promised something if they would confess? Was the defendant lied to about evidence in possession? Is there video of the interrogation? Is part of that video missing? Why? And so on and so forth.

Interrogation procedure must also be reformed. Every interrogation should be video-recorded. Confessions should not be able to be admitted as evidence at trial unless the total time of interrogation was less than a couple of hours. Confessions from children, the mentally ill and the intoxicated should be immediately dismissed. Police should be held accountable for misconduct, intimidation, coercion and mistreatment of suspects. With just these few small changes, we could avoid some seriously disastrous outcomes.

This is Part 3 of a series about reasonable doubt and the American justice system. You can read the previous parts here. Read part 4 here. If you want to be notified when the next part comes out, be sure to subscribe using the email subscription form in the sidebar or follow me on Twitter: @godless_mom

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Brian Curtis

    And this isn’t even the complete list. There’s misguided attempts to ‘cover’ for someone else who you think (rightly or wrongly) is actually guilty.

  • Otto

    Even if the cops themselves don’t get a confession the prosecution will often use the ‘carrot and stick’ to get a guilty plea. They hold ‘throwing the book’ over the head of a defendant if they force a trial but promise a lenient sentence recommendation if they just come ‘clean’. This leads to the defendant having to decide between taking a chance of being locked up for a very long time if the trial does not go their way or to just plead guilty and take the safe route to what may be just a couple of years or maybe even just some jail time. This plays especially well on poor people that can’t afford a good legal defense and with small to medium crimes that could carry big sentences but that could also maybe only warrant a slap on the wrist. This is a large reason why successful prosecutions went from 75% in the 1970’s to 93% as of 2012.

    Now doesn’t that show what a great job prosecutors are doing?

  • David in Tucson

    Parents themselves can be the agent of this kind of cruelty. I remember being seven years old, and my mother discovered some marks on a yellow rubber-coated raincoat (they were common in the 1950s and 1960s), and she went ballistic. She was sure that I had been playing with a pen and gotten ink all over the coat; I didn’t even know there were any marks on the coat till I got home. That poor, pathetic excuse for a human being just bullied her way until I finally confessed, just to make it stop. I think that’s when I began to hate her.

  • Jim Jones

    ‘It’s better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be wrongly convicted’ ??

    The UK has a much better system but still . . .

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/its-better-that-10-guilty-men-go-free-than-one-innocent-man-be-wrongly-convicted-944059.html

    Also see:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-7o9xYp7eE

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08fZQWjDVKE

  • Wile F. Coyote

    This series of articles is quite useful. While nothing is likely to ever be perfected, including the US justice system, there is evidence presented of achievable remedies to documented injustice and potential future repeats. Two of the biggest obstacles to quality reform is system actor intransigence, both within the police officer community but perhaps of greater impact at the District Attorney position.

    The most readily available justice (and safety) measure is the motion camera w/sound recording, both in the field and in interrogation rooms/confinement facilities. I am ready to consider reasonable objections to universal implementation of this technology. To date every claim I am familiar with advanced against total & ubiquitous use are to my mind best case weaselly disingenuous, and shoddy rationalization for unjustifiable secrecy others.

    This evidence of proceedings following arrest camera footage provides substantially impedes incentive for police officers and prosecutors to employ undue coercive measures for both confessions and prosecution based upon undocumented methods/proceedings utilized in interrogations. It seems to me that a confession obtained using methods an interrogator insists must be concealed from everyone but the officers/suspect(s) in the room(s) is a confession which is dubious at best.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    ALL questioning should be taped and the jury should have to watch ALL OF IT. They would probably all confess to the crime, which is not a bad thing.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    GW1: I think this is a valuable essay, but I have a few qualms.

    CH1: Warden has studied the causes of wrongful convictions and why people confess to crimes they did not commit, and he estimates that false confessions are involved in nearly half of all murder cases.

    GW1: I am very skeptical of this estimate. I doubt he has sound evidence to back up this estimate.

    CH1: Even when police are following protocol by the book, there are still practices used in the interrogation room that can and do lead to false confessions.

    GW1: But this does not necessarily mean that the practice is bad. Because of personality factors some persons will falsely confess even when police use good procedures.

    CH1: In fact, this is one of the leading reasons people confess to things they did not commit. They are held in a room with no food, no water, no bed, no comfort, for upwards of 48 hours, sometimes more. Bright lights are shining down and every few minutes an officer comes in who is certain they’ve committed the crime in question and treats them like scum; like a hardened criminal. They’re yelled at. They’re sworn at. They are not allowed to sleep.

    GW1: Most of these conditions seem to be unethical to me. Aren’t there standards for interrogation? If not, there should be. If there are and they are broken, then better monitoring needed. The later suggestion for video recording is a good one.

    CH1: During questioning, police convinced Lloyd that if he confessed to the crime in question, it would somehow help them “flush out” the real perpetrator. Lloyd, who wanted nothing more than to help, signed his confession and spent the next 17 years in prison.

    GW1: Sounds like unethical and perhaps illegal deception.

    CH1: In the USA, it is still legal for police to lie to the men and women they are interrogating about the evidence they may or may not already have.

    GW1: Should this be illegal? When police lie, what are the rates of false positive and true positive confessions? When police lie, does the benefit outweigh the harm? It would be important to know these things.

    CH1: While there are a great many good policemen, the idea that we should blindly trust the men and women of the police force to do exactly what they are supposed to do, even when they are under extreme pressure to find a culprit, is idiotic at the absolute best.

    GW1: It is also idiotic to blindly mistrust police staff. Evidence!

    CH1: Some suspects in interrogation don’t understand what it means to be signing your own confession, and some equate it with signing a witness statement.

    GW1: Maybe suspects should be given a specific warning before they sign a confession, telling them what signing does mean.

    CH1: This is why children and the mentally ill should never be interrogated without the presence of counsel. Even if they don’t ask for it.

    GW1: I certainly agree.

    CH1: It’s off-putting to know that confessions are no more evidence than a vision from a dream.

    GW1: This is a false statement, and it is contradicted by two subsequent statements: “If a confession is admitted as evidence in a trial, jurors must be made aware of the circumstances surrounding it.” And “Confessions should not be able to be admitted as evidence at trial unless the total time of interrogation was less than a couple of hours.”

    CH1: Every interrogation should be video-recorded.

    GW1: Excellent idea.

  • Jim Jones

    > GW1: Most of these conditions seem to be unethical to me. Aren’t there standards for interrogation?

    In the USA, cops invent their own rules and even the laws. Seriously.

    Google (arrested us canadian driving license)

    Also https://tinyurl.com/yat7wj2x

  • EllyR

    The solution should be very simple, any confesion should be backed up by evidence. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c9b7e015ab48548f922cfd472f3804fcacb16cdb73187227e9f69e6aba31e218.jpg

  • Illithid

    If I’m ever being interrogated by police, my one-word reply to any question will be “lawyer”. Scary, scary stuff. Must reiterate warnings to my son.

  • Otto

    That is very important as I found out last summer. I woke up one day to my son on the front page of the local paper’s website. His image was being passed around on social media because he and 2 friends went into a construction site and looked around, then they shot off some fire extinguishers. They did not steal anything or do any other damage, just being dumb ass teenagers. It had actually happened a month before, but just the previous weekend 3 kids were known to have stolen a pickup and an ATV. they put the pickup in the river and heavily damaged the ATV. Understandably the cops thought the crimes might be connected so they released the footage of my son in an effort to identify him. The picture was very clear so I knew he would be caught. I was able to get in front of the problem and hauled my son in to take responsibility for the fire extinguishers, I knew he did not do the other one because he had been with me and the others kids had very solid alibi’s too. But I also know that does not always matter, I got a lawyer and mitigated the situation. My son got a down and dirty criminal justice education in a very short time.

  • Illithid

    Sounds like a valuable lesson learned relatively cheaply. Kids change you. Nothing that could happen to me worries me nearly as much as something happening to him.

  • Jason Reagan

    We should teach every child this along with their ABCs.

    If you are taken in for questioning only say the following:

    “I decline to answer any and all questions. I would like to speak to my attorney.”

    “Am I being charged with a crime at this time. No? Am I free to leave?”

    Then lay your head down on the table…make no eye contact and wait. No words. In about 2 minutes..repeat above.

  • Otto

    Cheap for me, my son had just started his first job and his he spent $1000.00 out of pocket between the court costs and restitution.

  • Bravo Sierra

    So many kids learn that lesson the much harder way.

  • Bravo Sierra

    In the U.S., you have a Fifth Amendment right to keep your mouth shut. Use it. If you want to confess, confess to your attorney.

  • Jeroen Metselaar

    There is a simple solution of course: Make a confession not admissible as decisive evidence.

    That maybe sounds weird to Americans but is a quite common rule in many law-systems. It forces the prosecution to always support a confession with material evidence. It also makes fabricating an unsubstantiated confession pointless.

  • One could confess to killing Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Marvin Acme.

    Even Roger Rabbit was accused of Acme’s murder.

  • Good point! It is a sign of the ignorance of much of the American populace (I have little knowledge of other places, so I can’t pick on them) thinks asking for a lawyer is a sign of guilt. 🙁

  • Late to the party: evidently, I am one of a few people in the country who thinks that the possibility of making a false confession as real (and obvious) as the sky’s being blue, the grass’s being green, and the earth’s being round*.

    I think my experience informs me here: the church I was raised in has been called a “cult”. Anyway, there were times I was grilled on things I did and rules I broke, and people would go at it like a bulldog on a steak to get me to say what they wanted to hear. I would insist I didn’t do what I was accused of, then get accused of lying, deceit, pride,or even rebellion. (In fundamentalist Christianity, pride and rebellion are very heinous sins.) I would say what they wanted to hear just to get them to leave me alone. (One time they even had the audacity to ask why I lied.)

    Some of the first video reminds me of how I was grilled. (Note: I was never grilled for more than an hour.)

    Thus, if a church can get people to confess to things they didn’t commit, how much more can a police department do so? (The church *does* have the advantage of being able to threaten eternal damnation more easily than the police.)

    *I know, I heard of flat-earthers, but everyone else makes fun of them: I do think the idea that people wouldn’t confess to something they didn’t do is on the level of flat-eartherism.

  • David in Tucson

    I did not grow up in a religious cult, but my mother had issues. She was a slightly rabid Roman Catholic, and had a whole lot of health issues as well, including multiple sclerosis and post-polio syndrome (sure about the former; I suspect the latter). Thanks to her, and something she did to me when I was seven years old, I know without a doubt that parents can be quite vicious when they want to extract a confession from their children, facts and evidence be damned.

  • markr1957

    I had a good friend in the British Army who was picked up and questioned after a night of near toxic level drinking – to the point that he was carried back to his bunk and put to bed unconscious – and talked into signing a confession to murder and multiple attempted murders. All this in spite of the fact that the actual murderer had already been detained in the barracks guardroom cells. There seems to be something about indoctrination in any form that makes people accept anything coming from authority.

  • Anat

    Most people don’t want their kids to learn this sort of stuff because they don’t want them to use a similar attitude towards parents and teachers.

  • Anat

    How does an average person get an attorney when they are being questioned by the police?

  • Bald Humanist

    Demand one. They have to either let you contact an attorney or provide you with a public defender.

    Or…..one can simply fall silent and only respond with “I decline to answer. Am I free to go?”

    It’s tough to do..but…

  • Bald Humanist

    Oh sure…we indoctrinate them to not question authority.

  • Morgan Lefaye

    What if they respond by hitting or kicking you for insolence and insubordination? I have white privilege, but that doesn’t always protect 100%.

  • Morgan Lefaye

    Same here. I would not ask if I was being detained and if I had the right to go, because that would sound rude as hell and provoke a beating or worse from the cop.

  • Morgan Lefaye

    Americans don’t want to acknowledge that interrogators routinely torture suspects by sleep deprivation and lack of sleep for days at a time. Would the suspect also be forced to urinate and defecate on him/herself because they’re not allowed to leave the room? If so, does the cop then punish them further with fines or hitting? I’m serious about this.