How Innocent People Confess to Violent Crimes

With even the barest of evidence, a confession can close a prosecutor’s case. After all, if someone admits that they have committed a violent crime, few juries or judges are likely to disagree. However, recent research by Professor Brandon L. Garrett suggests that this confidence in confessions is sometimes misplaced.

According to the Innocence Project, post-conviction DNA testing has resulted in the exoneration of more than 250 people since 1989. Among the exonerated, more than 40 of those convicted falsely confessed to the rapes and murders. In almost all of these cases, those making false confessions offered details of the crime that an outside observer could not know – thereby making the criminal confession seem more authentic.

What could cause an innocent person to convincingly confess to a crime? Scholars have long understood the powers of psychologically pressure, and the role that such pressures can play in generating false confessions. Young people, the mentally ill and the mentally impaired are among the most likely to be induced to falsely confess. However, these pressures and characteristics do not account for the detailed information that those providing false confessions are able to generate.

To understand the origins of these details, Professor Garrett looked into the trial transcripts, recorded confessions and other background materials. In so doing, he discovered how these details can enter a confession.

Intentionally or otherwise, police officers routinely introduce details of the criminal case into the interrogation – thereby allowing the person accused to repeat an accurate-sounding narrative. After the narrative is constructed and the confession is made, prosecutors focus on the details that aren’t available to the public.

In the eyes of the prosecutor, judge and jury, the fact that the person who has confessed knows of these details indicates that he or she must be guilty. Unfortunately, this overlooks the reality of the situation – how these details have been provided to the confessor.

Ultimately, Garrett concluded that the false confessions among the exonerated were almost always contaminated in this way.

Historically courts have only been concerned about the voluntary nature of a confession; the inclusion or exclusion of a confession at trial has depended on whether the confession was freely given. However, this study indicates that courts should consider more than just the voluntary nature of the confession, but also the reliability of the confession. When confessions are simply assumed to be truthful in a criminal case, innocent people can be convicted and can face serious criminal consequences.

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