False Confession

A History of False Confession (Rob Jones)

            One of the first recorded instances of false confession dates back to September 1666. The great fire of London had just destroyed 13,000 homes and Robert Hubert the Frenchman, claiming to be working for the pope, confessed to being the arsonist and was promptly hanged on September 28. It was only later that the validity of his claim to infamy was questioned; as Hubert hadn’t even been in London the day the fire started, and he was an invalid incapable of igniting the fire in the way he had described- by hurling a bomb into a local bakery.  Hubert’s fabrication began what would be a long history of false confession in the courtroom. (Livingston 2007)

One of the most famous and horrific instances in which false confessions were procured was during the Salem witch trials of 1692. During this time of hysteria and occult paranoia, nineteen women who were accused of practicing witchcraft were executed and many more were jailed.  These brutal court proceedings relied largely on torturous means of coercing the women into making false confessions.(Blumberg, 2007)

           The barbarous history of forced-false confession is an unfortunately long one. For centuries after the Salem Witch trials, torture continued to be used as a tool for harvesting confessions out of suspects. It took three centuries for the Supreme Court to finally come down on torturous means of interrogation in the case of Brown V. Mississippi in 1936. A statement issued by the court before the proceedings summarizes the heart of the issue:

“The question in this case is whether convictions which rest solely upon confessions           shown to have been extorted by officers of the State by brutality and violence are consistent with the due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.” Brown v. Mississippi (1936)

In a unanimous decision by the court it was ruled that the 14th Amendment concerning due process had indeed been violated and this was to set a precedent for years to come.

Study of False Confessions in the 80’s, 90’s and ’00’s

            Only around the 1980’s did psychologists and other social scientists begin to truly investigate the phenomena of the false confession. In the late 1980’s six individual studies documented an estimated 250 false confessions brought about by intense interrogation. These studies found that far from being an anomaly, false confession may be the single leading cause of wrongful conviction in homicide cases. (False Confessions)

One particular study, conducted by Kassin and Wrightsman in 1985 looked at the three different type of confessions they found associated with false declarations of guilt. They were voluntary, coerced or coerced-internalized.

  • Voluntary– This type of confession is made without any pressure from the outside. The person willingly and knowingly confesses to a crime.
  • Coerced– This type of confession is made only to escape an interrogation that the person may see as aversive, avoid harm, or to get a benefit that was promised
  • Coerced-internalized– People who make the confession actually come to believe they have committed the crime (Kassin and Wrightsman, 1985)

Profile of an Innocent man: Eddie Lloyd

           In 1984, Eddie Lloyd, a mentally Ill man who set out to help police with information concerning a number of crimes around Detroit was convinced during an interrogation to confess to the killing of a 16 year old girl. The police told Lloyd that by confessing he would help lure the true killer out of hiding. However, once he confessed he was given a life sentence and thrown in jail.  He remained in jail as an innocent man until 2002 when DNA evidence finally exonerated him. Due to this case and many like it, police are obligated to videotape all interrogations that may carry a life sentence with a conviction.(Innocence Project, 2002)


        Why are there so many instances of fabricated confession in the modern court system? Where is the root of this problem? In the 1990’s research in the area of false confession begin to zero in on the factors that contributed to false confession. What followed was a series of studies looking into interrogation techniques and particular suggestions and coercions in the process may elicit a false confession. A study by Kassin and Kiechel in 1996 studied false confessions by setting up the following scenario:

-Participants told to type into a program while avoiding hitting a certain key which would terminate the program.

-While typing, the program automatically shut down, even though they key had not been pressed.

-The participants were then accused of hitting the off button by the experimenter.

The experimenters in this study sought to determine if people could truly convince themselves of an act that they hadn’t committed. (Kassin & Kiechel, 1996)

      Kassin and Kiechel found that many participants often quickly convinced themselves that they had actually pressed the button. This study highlights how impressionable people can be in high pressure situations. The accusations of the experimenters were light compared to the interrogation tactics often utilized in police proceedings. These tense and stressful interviews can cause a suspect to admit guilt, in order to gain some leniency or charges that may be trumped up by the prosecution.


Around this time, in the early 2000’s social scientists began scrutinizing interrogation tactics used by police in order to further understanding of the false confession.

          In his research paper “Interviewing suspects: Practice, science, and future directions”, Saul Kassin, a professor of criminal psychology at John Jay college of criminal justice in New York summarizes the interrogation process and why it can be problematic:

      “…Interrogation is by definition a guilt-presumptive process, a theory-driven social interaction led by an authority figure who already believes that he or she is interrogating the perpetrator and for whom a just outcome is measured by confession. In the case of innocent suspects, one would hope that investigators would periodically re-evaluate their beliefs. Over the years, however, a good deal of research has shown that once people form an impression, they unwittingly seek, interpret, and create behavioural data that verify it. This last phenomenon – often referred to as the behavioural conformation bias – has been observed not only in the laboratory but in classrooms, the military, the workplace, and other settings” (McNatt, 2000; Nickerson, 1998).

One particularly agressive and popular model of interrogation often utilized by police officers in the US is the Reid Technique which is comprised of eight steps, carefully formulated to squeeze a confession out of a suspect.

Step 1: The interrogator confronts the suspect with a strong assertion of guilt, often accompanied by the presentation of incriminating evidence, real, or contrived.

Step 2: The interrogator begins to develop ‘themes’ that minimize the seriousness of the offense and offer moral justification – for example, by blaming the victim or other circumstances.

Step 3: The interrogator is then instructed to interrupt all denial efforts should the suspect continue to maintain his or her innocence.

Step 4: Attempt to overcome the suspect’s moral, factual, and emotional objections as to why he or she could not or would not have committed the crime.

Step 5: Show sympathy and understanding to get the suspect to cooperate.

Step 6: Revisit the themes developed earlier by presenting an ‘alternative question’ which presents two guilty interpretations of the crime in which one is more acceptable than the other

Step 7: If the suspect accepts the lesser alternative, constituting a preliminary admission of guilt, the interrogator seeks a fuller narrative admission complete with details about the crime.

Step 8: Convert that narrative into a full written confession detailing what, how, and why, that will prove credible in court.

-Taken from “Interviewing suspects: Practice, science, and future directions” by Saul Kassin. (Kassin, Appleby, & Perillo, 2010).

This technique is well documented as the most popular interrogation technique utilized in the US today. It is easy to see how such tactics could convince an innocent person to confess guilt.

Of those particularly susceptible to false admittance, juvenile and mentally ill suspects are of particularly high risk:

   -Redlich (2007) found that offenders with mental illness self reported a 22% lifetime false confession rate. This is a significantly higher rate than is found in prison samples of inmates who were not diagnosed with mental illness.

  -Owen-Kostelnik, Reppucci, and Meyer (2006) concluded that adolescents are both “more compliant and suggestible than adults and that their decision-making is characterized by an ‘immaturity of judgment’ which leads them to be impulsive, focused on the present, and diminished in their capacity to perceive risk.”

Here we see such extreme interrogation tactics in action, working to coerce a false confession of guilt from a child:



The Innocence Project: Why do innocent people confess?

In 1992, The Innocence Project was founded by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University as a program to assist wrongly convicted prisoners with the new DNA technology which would exonerate them. The Innocence project has proven through time to be a bastian of hope to all those who have been falsely convicted, through wrongful admittance or otherwise.

“A variety of factors can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation. Many cases have included a combination of several of these causes. They include: duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence, the actual infliction of harm, the threat of a harsh sentence and misunderstanding the situation.” (Innocence, 1992)

“False confessions have played a role in 25% of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing. Here, University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett describes the wrongful conviction of Frank Sterling in New York and reforms to prevent false confessions in other cases.” -The Innocence Project



The Innocence Project (1992)- About Us: Mission Statement. (n.d.). The Innocence Project – Home. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from http://www.innocenceproject.org/about/Mission-Statement.php

The Truth About False Confessions: A Legal History of the Wrongly Convicted Retrieved November 20, 2012, from http://voices.yahoo.com/the-truth-false-confessions-legal-history-300056.html?cat=17

Blumberg, J. (2007). A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine.History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved November 26, 2012, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/brief-salem.html

False Confessions – Fact Sheet. (n.d.).False Confessions. Retrieved November 15, 2012, from http://www.falseconfessions.org/fact-a-figures

The Innocence Project – Know the Cases: Browse Profiles:Eddie Joe Lloyd. (n.d.).The Innocence Project – Home. Retrieved November 12, 2012, from http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Eddie_Joe_Lloyd.php

Kassin, S., & Wrightsman, L. (1985). Confession Evidence. Psychology of Evidence and Trial Proceeduren.d, 76-79.

Kassin, S.M., Appleby, S.C., & Perillo, J.T. (2010). Interviewing suspects: practice, science, and future directions. Legal and Criminological Psychology. 15, 39-55.

Kassin, S.M., Kiechel, K.L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science. 7, 125-128

Owen-Kostelnik, J., Reppucci, N. D., & Meyer, J. D. (2006). Testimony and interrogation of minors: Assumptions about maturity and morality. American Psychologist, 61, 286–304

Redlich, A. D. (2007). Double jeopardy in the interrogation room: Young age and mental illness. American Psychologist, 62, 609–611



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