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Why do innocent people confess to crimes?

On Behalf of | Apr 21, 2022 | Criminal Defense, Current Topics in the News |

It is an understatement to say that getting arrested or even detained by law enforcement can be extremely stressful. Due to officers’ coercion or other complications, these individuals who broke no laws (or at least not the one charged) find themselves admitting to a crime they did not commit. These people could be young or old, male or female, white or a person of color.

There now is a new book entitled “Duped: Why Innocent People Confess and Why We Believe Their Confessions,” written by Saul Kassin, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Kassin is a social psychologist dedicated to the study of false confessions. Kassin has interviewed hundreds of people who have given false confessions, including an 18-year-old accused of killing his mother.

He points out that law enforcement often coerces the suspect into creating a false narrative, which the victim then internalizes as truth in their mind and offers a false confession because they come to believe that it happened. Ideally, facts later arise, eventually exonerating the victims years and sometimes decades after the charges.

Still, the courts initially take the defendant at their word and convict them. According to the professor, people have a hard time believing someone would falsely confess unless they were beaten, tortured or coerced. The standard view of coercion includes withholding water and food and badgering them, but coercion usually involves the Reid method, which officers often employ during interrogation.

The Reid method

This method trains law enforcement, leading them to believe they can tell if someone is lying. It starts with an officer having a friendly initial conversation with the defendant called a Behavioral Analysis Interview. If law enforcement believes the subject is lying, the officer launches into an attack using accusation, trickery and deceit. The goal is full confession.

The issue is that the officer already believes they have a guilty party because they are “lying” and then work towards that sometimes-erroneous presumption. Often the victims have experienced trauma, such as the death of a loved one, which makes them particularly vulnerable to these methods.

The innocent can fight back

Innocent suspects who admit to a crime can recant their admission and seek exoneration. They may even assume that DNA or forensics will eventually clear them of the crime. Still, it is always an uphill battle where they and others will need to fight for their release because law enforcement and the courts loathe admitting they got it wrong.