False Confessions / Admissions

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Background

The phenomenon of False Confessions is not a recent development. In the United States alone, false confessions date back to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, when it was common for accusations of witchcraft to lead to false confessions.[1]

Today, false confessions are a leading cause of error in wrongful convictions. In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.[2] Because false confessions are generally discovered through subsequent exonerations, it is unknown how common false confessions are.[3]

Confessions are extremely persuasive at trial. Despite widespread evidence of false confessions, juries have difficulty understanding the basic notion of a false confession. Even when coercion is a factor, many people are unable to comprehend how an individual could possibly confess to a crime that he or she did not commit.[4]


Persuasiveness of Confessions

There are a number of reasons why coerced confessions continue to be such persuasive evidence. First, police-induced confessions are counterintuitive to many people. Despite studies substantiating the prevalence of false confessions, juries have difficulty understanding how someone could confess to a crime they did not commit. In addition, coercion is misunderstood by many people. In general, only physical torture is found to be coercive, ignoring the influence of psychological games and maneuvers by police investigators that can lead to confessions. Finally, many attorneys lack the knowledge or ability to determine whether a confession is false, which leads to innocent defendants pleading guilty at the behest of their lawyers to avoid harsh sentences.[5]


Traits of Coercion, Force and False Statements

Part of a defense attorney's responsibility includes investigating any confessions by clients. It is important to look for specific elements of coercion, force and false statements. Elements include:

Coerced Confession

  • Pressure
  • Deception
  • Persuasion
  • Custodial
  • False Promises
  • False Facts
  • Youth
  • Low Self-Esteem


Forced Confession

  • Physical Threats
  • Emotional Threats
  • Isolation
  • Deprived of Food
  • Physical Contact
  • Several Interrogators
  • Length of Holding
  • Fear


False Confession

  • Youth
  • Mental Health Issues
  • Linguistic Clues
  • Inaccurate Answers
  • Non-responsive
  • Contradictory
  • Exaggerated
  • Desire to Please


All of the elements listed above can contribute to a client making a false confession. To investigate, obtain any evidence of the confession. Look for police recordings of the interrogation and subsequent confession. Interview your client and the police officers. Ask the client what happened and look for any discrepancies between their story and the confession. Remember to never presume the client is guilty, even if they have "confessed" to the police.[6]


Solutions

Practical Considerations

Trial Tips

Case Studies

  • Shawn Massey

Notes

  1. Saul M. Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform, Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:4, 249 (2008) available at http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/files/Kassin%20%282008%29%20-%20APS%20CD.pdf.
  2. Innocence Project Website: [1]
  3. Saul M. Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform, Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:4, 249 (2008) available at http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/files/Kassin%20%282008%29%20-%20APS%20CD.pdf.
  4. Saul M. Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform, Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:4, 249 (2008) available at http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/files/Kassin%20%282008%29%20-%20APS%20CD.pdf.
  5. Saul M. Kassin, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform, Current Directions in Psychological Science 17:4, 249 (2008) available at http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/files/Kassin%20%282008%29%20-%20APS%20CD.pdf.
  6. International Bridges to Justice: Vietnam Hanoi Criminal Defense Training Program Materials(2004).