Confessions: True or False?

Police interrogation rooms are designed to be spare and sterile. Image c/o krystian_o/Flickr

In criminal law, there is perhaps no bit of evidence more damning than a confession. For heaven’s sake, if you are innocent why would you ever admit guilt?!?! From a lay perspective, a false confession seems preposterous, so it’s hardly surprising that the justice system acquits precious few defendants who yield to accusations of serious crimes.

But in reality, many individuals wind up behind bars, having confessed to the crimes of which they stood accused, who had nothing to do with the wrongdoings in question. In fact, the New York-based Innocence Project estimates that about 20 per cent of convictions later vacated through DNA testing hinged on bogus confessions. How is that possible?

To answer that question, we must take a closer look at the method of interrogation used by police forces in Canada and the United States, a method so refined and calculated, it bears its own trademark: the Reid Technique.

Originally devised by police interrogator and polygraphist John E. Reid in 1947, the Reid technique entails a 9-step interrogation protocol. Among the investigator’s tasks is to

1) introduce “evidence” of the suspect’s culpability (which need not be factual, as long as it erodes the suspect’s estimation of his own prospects, and instills in him a willingness to play ball),

2) show empathy and downplay the seriousness of the crime (i.e. “I can totally understand why you would murder your boss. You’ve been under a lot of pressure lately, haven’t you?”) while suppressing the suspect’s denials of guilt,

and 3) persuade the suspect to recount how the crime was committed, in detail. Police then use this information to reinforce the credibility of the confession in court.

Strangely, though, investigators have often failed to compare this final portion of the confession to the facts of the original incident. In April 1989, five teenage suspects were charged with the rape and severe beating of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park, and all five confessed. However, the suspects told police the victim had been stabbed, when in fact she had been beaten, and many of their accounts were mutually contradictory. They also cited the location of the attack incorrectly. Apparently, a confession was good enough for the cops and the jury, no matter how fraught with inconsistencies it happened to be.

There are many reasons for suspects to confess falsely. Some will do it to escape from a stressful situation, or a lengthy and uncomfortable interrogation. A 2004 study by researchers Drizin and Leo found interrogations that elicited false confessions averaged over 16 hours in duration – about 10 times longer than a typical police interview. Others will confess because they lack the intellectual capacity to argue effectively, or because they tend to be highly impressionable. Youth and children are also particularly vulnerable to the Reid technique, perhaps because they view the police as paragons of authority, not to be questioned or quarreled with.

In any event, the presumptive notion of the confession as a nail in the coffin for the prosecution’s case, is a dangerous one – particularly if the admission is uncorroborated by facts.

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