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A confession is a detailed written or sometimes oral statement in which a person admits to having committed a criminal offence. Confessions are very powerful evidentiary tools in criminal law when it comes to trials and certain convictions. They are an irrefutable admission of guilt. Police officers see the interrogation process as a means of obtaining a confession or additional evidence that will prove the person’s guilt (Ainsworth, 2000). Important factors that elicit false confessions are those that are the consequence of police interrogation methods that are designed to induce a confession from the guilty but may induce a confession from the innocent (Howitt, 2006). Not all false confessions are solicited by police. The consequence of false confession can be as serious as those who give a true confession. They are at high risk of being convicted even though they may retract their confession later, which is unlikely to be accepted. “From a psychological perspective, a false confession is any detailed admission to a criminal act that the confessor did not commit” (Kassin and Gudjosson, 2004). There are various reasons why people might confess to a crime they never committed.
Kassin (1997) classifies false confessions into three types, voluntary false confession, forced-compliant false confession and forced-internalized false confession: Voluntary false confessions are self-incriminating statements that are offered without external pressure. There are several reasons why a person might be inclined to do this. It can be done to protect a relative or friend, especially when it comes to juvenile delinquents. Another reason is the pathological need for fame, acceptance, recognition or self-punishment an example of this is the kidnapping of the baby of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, when more than 200 people confessed to the crime (Kassin, 1997).
In Coerced – Complaint false confessions suspects confess after intense interrogation pressures. This happens when the suspect confesses to escape from avoiding more interrogation or to gain what the police offered in exchange for a confession. The confession in this case is only an act of compliance and the suspect knows that he/she is innocent but believes that by confessing they will be alone etc. They are only aware of the short-term effects of confession and never remember it. this will lead to prosecution and possibly imprisonment. They often plead guilty because the police lead them to believe that they will be granted sentence reductions (Kassin, 1997). An example of this is when 5 teenage boys, from 14 to 17 years old, after intensive interrogations that lasted between 14 and 30 hours, confessed to being involved in the violent attack of a 28-year-old woman. The teenagers later said they simply told the police what they wanted to hear so they could go home (Meissner and Russano, 2003).
One of the most interesting types of false confessions are the Forced-internalized confessions. An innocent person confesses after being subjected to interrogation methods that cause severe anxiety and confusion. The suspect ends up actually thinking that they may have committed the crime. This is very dangerous because a suspect’s memory of his/her actions can be altered and the suspect can no longer identify the truth. This type of confession can happen mostly if the suspect is vulnerable, for example is naive, young, lacks intelligence coupled with false evidence that makes him/her believe that they really did the act (Kassin, 1997). When suspects are confronted with false evidence of their guilt, such as being told that they failed a polygraph test or that their DNA was found at the scene of the crime, they begin to question their memory of what really happened and their involvement in the crime. (Meissner and Russano, 2003). The most famous case involving coerced false confessions is that involving Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff accused of the satanic ritual abuse of his daughter (Meissner and Russano, 2003). Ingram initially denied the allegations, but after 5 months of repeated interrogation, hypnotism and coaxing to remember the abuse he relented and confessed. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, without any physical evidence to support the confession. Ingram’s memory vulnerability came from being repeatedly told by investigators and psychologists “that it would be natural for him to repress memories of his crimes, and that his memory could be recovered by praying to God for answers”. (He was a deeply religious man) (Meissner and Russano, 2003).
In 1974, members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) planted bombs in two pubs in Guildford, England. Five people were killed and 57 injured. A month later, a bomb exploded in The King’s Arms in Woolrich, South London, killing 2 and injuring 27. The explosions caused public outrage, and around 150 detectives went to work on the case. Four of the suspects who were arrested confessed to the crimes. They were convicted and imprisoned. Gudjonnson, joined by others looked into the case and later made it clear that the four confessed to crimes they did not commit. After 15 years in prison they were acquitted and released. The above case serves as excellent examples of investigator bias. The police must have been outraged by these senseless bombings. Their rage may have made them “willing to believe” they were really guilty or innocent. Gudjonnson specified this obscure dilemma: “Questioning bias can result in police officers being particularly attentive and receptive to information that is consistent with their prior assumptions and beliefs, while ignoring, minimizing or distorting information that contradicts their assumptions. Information that does not support the interviewer’s hypotheses can be mistakenly interpreted as lies, misunderstanding, evasiveness or defensiveness” According to Gusjonsson, the stronger the previous assumptions and beliefs of the interviewer, the greater the bias of the interrogator.
Police officers who manage to elicit a confession are rewarded with a lot of respect. Their methods of interviewing suspects are seen as a way of showing their “professional skill” (Ainsworth, 2000). Police officers are highly motivated to solve crimes and sometimes do whatever they can to get a confession from their suspects. Stress, pressure and threat are applied to the interrogation because they increase fear, anxiety, guilt or anger. This, according to the police will test their “guilty knowledge” (Ainsworth, 2000). Gudjonsoon is critical of police deception techniques. He feels that “police deception and deception deprive suspects of the opportunity to make informed and rational decisions about their right not to incriminate themselves”
Gudjosson and Clark suggested the concept of “interrogative cueing” to explain how individuals respond differently to police questioning. “Question suggestion” according to Gudjosson is how people in a closed social area accept messages when asking questions and how their behavior and response is affected by this (Conti, 1999). Gudjosson described five elements that he saw as part of the “questioning suggestion”: Closed interaction between the suspect and interrogator, questioning procedure with two or more participants, suggestive stimulus (suggestions, ideas), acceptance of the proposed stimulus and behavioral response to the. suggestions (accepted or not). In such a situation the interrogator can manipulate trust, uncertainty and expectation to be able to change the person’s susceptibility to suggestions (Conti, 1999).
Characteristics of the person affect the way this method works. People with low intelligence, poor memory, low self-esteem, anxiety are more likely to be suggestive and more likely to give false statements and confess to crimes they did not commit. Introverts are more able to be conditioned easily than extroverts, and since many criminals are extroverted and designed for the typical criminal, can have a negative effect on innocent introverts. (Conti, 1999) Stress is another important factor that interrogators use to elicit confessions. A certain amount of stress applied to a normal person could get the truth about him/her, but if it is applied to someone who is psychologically weak, it can result in a false confession (Conti, 1999).
To reduce the incidence of false confessions police investigators should receive special training in proper interviewing skills. During training, special attention should also be given to dealing with individuals with special needs such as the mentally disabled and young during interrogation. Effective communication practices by investigators will lead to accuracy and accountability in the criminal justice system and hopefully reduce the number of wrongful convictions (Cassell, 1998). The judicial system must be more aware of the inappropriate approaches of eliciting confessions from suspects in custody. Questions should be centered on eliciting the truth rather than trying to get a confession. When questioning a potential suspect, the investigator should adopt a disinterested role rather than an adversarial one (Conti, 1999). The length of interviews, is also harmful and can be responsible for false confessions. Long interrogations cause anxiety and stress. Limiting the amount of time interrogations can last, the time they are held, for example not when the suspect is supposed to be sleeping will reduce the phenomenon of false confessions (Conti, 1999). In order to eliminate foregone conclusions and guarantee the accuracy and authenticity of confessions, it is essential that statements issued be substantiated by evidence. With DNA tests exonerating scores of people wrongly accused and convicted of crimes, claims of false confessions have been vindicated.
Another idea is to tape or record all interrogations. A mandatory video requirement would serve a dual purpose of protecting law enforcement agencies from claims of misconduct and protecting the rights of suspects (Moushey and Perry, 2006). Meissner and Russano presented the “best practices” recommendations for questioning suspects. The first is Transparency of the Interrogation process, which recommends the videotaping of interrogations to be able to reduce the practice of investigators changing their use of coercive techniques to pre-interrogation techniques, and that the angle of the videotaping shows both the investigator and the suspect to reduce third party biases when deciding on the voluntariness of the confession. The second recommendation is The Identification of Suspected Vulnerabilities. Some individuals are more sensitive than others, especially if they are children/youths or mentally challenged. In these cases, help should be provided to these individuals. The psychological and physical state of the suspects should be taken into account at the time of questioning. Factors such as recent drug or alcohol use, lack of sleep or pain must also be considered. In this case, the interrogation should stop until the individual is in a “normal” state. The third recommendation of Meissner and Russano is the Avoidance of Techniques that Increase the Probability of False Confessions. Certain factors can influence individuals to falsely confess, so interrogators are advised not to use negative influence such as suggesting memory failure theories and presenting false evidence. According to Meissner and Russano, interrogators should also try not to prolong interrogations and not offer leniency or bargains in exchange for a confession. Meissner and Russano’s final recommendation is the Post-Interrogation Analysis of Confession Credibility proposed by Leo and Oshe (1998). An assessment of all facts before interrogation and after interrogation is recommended to verify that all facts are consistent.
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