False Confessions: Coercion often leads to false confessions
Thursday, August 31, 2006
By Bill Moushey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
But false confessions usually involve coercive interrogations in which police claim to have evidence of a suspect's guilt and then promise leniency for cooperation or severe punishment for non-cooperation.
In a study of 340 overturned convictions between 1989 and 2003, Dr. Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan Law School and his colleagues found that 51, or 15 percent, involved false confessions. Most of those confessions resulted from police coercion.
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University, which investigates allegations of wrongful convictions in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has sifted through hundreds of complaints and examined dozens of cases in Western Pennsylvania in which people claim to have falsely confessed under police pressure.
Such allegations can be difficult to document because many Pennsylvania police agencies fail to fully record interrogations, leaving controversies to stew for years. Among them:
Gone are the days when American detective bureaus routinely beat confessions out of criminal suspects.
But pressure still can be brought to bear, and many interrogation techniques widely accepted by law enforcement agencies have been found to produce false confessions.
The "good cop/bad cop" approach, which experts call "maximization and minimization," is one of the most common and has been supported by U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow police to lie to suspects.
Interrogations often start with the "bad cop" maximizing the situation. "The suspect is led to believe there is independent evidence of his guilt and that things will be particularly onerous if he doesn't cooperate," said Dr. Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., who has written extensively on false confessions.
The suspect is then cajoled into confessing by a "good cop" who minimizes the crime, suggesting, for example, "Perhaps it was accidental, perhaps it was provoked, perhaps he was pushed into it by his friends, perhaps he was under the influence of drugs at the time," Dr. Kassin said.
Children, like those accused in the Central Park jogger case, and the mentally ill or retarded, like Barry Laughman, are particularly vulnerable to such techniques, according to the study completed last year by Dr. Gross.
Of the juveniles who had been wrongly convicted between 1989 and 2003, Dr. Gross found that 42 percent were convicted because of false confessions -- compared with only 13 percent of the adults.
Of the exonerated adults who were mentally ill or retarded, 69 percent had falsely confessed -- compared with only 8 percent of the adults with no known mental disability.
While those numbers are dramatic, under the right circumstances almost anyone could be "worn down by coercive police interrogations," said Steven Drizin, an expert on false confessions and legal director of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.
"The interrogation often becomes an exercise in trying to confirm the suspicion that the suspect is guilty, rather than trying to figure out the truth," he said.
||How the System Works