False confessions

A false confession is a detailed written or oral statement in which a person admits to being guilty of a crime he or she did not commit. Exact occurance rates of false confessions cannot be determined, as an external criterion is often missing, which makes estimation difficult. Indicators can be figures from institutions that help innocent convicts, self-report studies or analyses of case material.

According to Kassin and Wrightsman (1985), there are three distinct types of false confessions. Coerced-compliant and coerced-internalized false confessions come about through pressure-exerting questioning techniques during police interrogations. On the other hand, a voluntary false confession, if this did not result from pressure by the investigating authorities. Possible motives include striving for notoriety or the desire to protect the real perpetrator.

There are personal and situational risk factors for false confessions (Kassin et al., 2010). Personal factors include personality factors such as suggestibility and conformity, which correlate positively with the probability of a false confession (Gudjonsson, 2003; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004). Other factors include young age (Kassin, 2012), intellectual impairment and psychiatric illness (Drizin & Leo, 2004; Kassin et al., 2010). Situational risk factors include pressure and manipulative interrogation methods. These include for example minimisation and maximisation. Minimisation tactics, among other things, trivialise the crime and show the accused understanding and compassion. Maximisation signals to the accused that he cannot escape a conviction anyway and that a confession can only have a mitigating effect on the punishment. In addition, sleep deprivation, food deprivation or a long interrogation period increase the probability of a false confession. Often a false confession is caused by a combination of situational and personal factors.

False confessions can have fatal consequences for the course of criminal proceedings and the evaluation of other evidence. The first problem is that false confessions cannot be distinguished from true confessions (Kassin, Meissner, & Norwick, 2005) and people often believe confessions. This is mainly because people tend to accept self-reports as true, and especially when they contradict self-interests (Kassin, 2012). It has also been shown that false confessions can influence other evidence. Contrary to popular belief, the assessment of physical evidence also has subjective components - especially when the evidence is ambiguous. If this is the case, scope for interpretation arises and contextual information (confession) comes into play when it comes to assessing whether, for example, two fingerprints are sufficiently similar (Schneider & Sauerland, 2016).

References

  • Kassin, S. M. (2012). Why confessions trump innocence. American Psychologist, 67, 431-445. doi:10.1037/a0028212.
  • Kassin, S. M., Drizin, S. A., Grisso, T., Gudjonsson, G. H., Leo, R. A., & Redlich, A. D. (2010). Police-induced confessions: Risk factors and recommendations. Law and Human Behavior, 34, 3–38. doi:10.1007/s10979-009-9188-6
  • Kassin, S. M., Meissner, C. A., & Norwick, R. J. (2005). “I’d know a false confession if I saw one”: A comparative study of college students and police investigators. Law and Human Behavior29, 211-227. doi:10.1007/s10979-005-2416-9
  • Schell-Leugers, J. M. (2014). The danger of innocence. Common sense beliefs and misconceptions about false confessions. (Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Humanities and Sciences, Maastricht). Available at digitalarchive.maastrichtuniversity.nl/fedora/get/guid:58946190-2c7e-48e0- a2e1-61967f88aa4d/ASSET1
  • Schell-Leugers, J. M., & Merckelbach, H. (2011). Falsche Geständnisse: Warum unschuldige Menschen Verbrechen gestehen, die sie nicht begangen haben. Das In-Mind Magazin, 1.
  • Schneider, T., & Sauerland, M. (2016, Februar, 16). Dass ich unschuldig bin, kommt später sowieso raus, oder? Nein, ein Geständnis macht alle anderen Beweise zunichte!. In-Mind Magazine. [Blogeintrag] Available at https://de.in-mind.org/blog/post/dass-ich-unschuldig-bin-kommt-spaeter-sowieso-raus-oder-nein-ein-gestaendnis-macht-alle
  • Volbert, R., & May, L. (2016). Falsche Geständnisse in polizeilichen Vernehmungen – Vernehmungsfehler oder immanente Gefahr?. Recht und Psychiatrie, 34, 4-10.