False Confessions: why & how? This month two extremely important cases are under review.
In the USA, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard the State’s appeal in the case of Richard Lapointe. The state is appealing the decision to grant Lapointe a new trial. False confessions (four) and forensic arson detection are key in this case.
In the Netherlands, the case of Martien Meijer-Hunnik will come up for review. Meijer-Hunnik spent years in prison for a murder he did not commit. The evidence against him? Nothing more than his own words.
Is it really possible to get someone to make a false confession without beating them up? Yes, here is why & how.
There are three psychologically different types of false confessions.
- Voluntary False Confessions: someone confesses falsely without any pressure from police
- Coerced-Compliant False Confessions: someone confesses falsely due to coercive pressure during interrogations. The retraction of that false confessions starts immediately after the pressure is over.
- Coerced-Internalized False Confessions: during police interrogations someone starts to believe that they did commit the crime even though they have no memory of the crime itself. The retraction of that false confession only comes after someone is internally convinced again that they are innocent. This is a process that may take years.
This memory distrust syndrome starts with a person distrusting their own memory. Instead, they start to rely on external sources of information. This syndrome is found in two types of suspects:
A: a suspect without memory of the alleged crime even though they did commit the act (memory loss due to drugs, alcohol, amnesia, etc.)
B: a suspect who at the beginning of the interrogation knew and remembered that they did not commit the crime but gradually start to distrust their own memory due to subtle manipulation by the interrogating officer. This is called “thought reform.”
Police induce sufficient self-doubt and confusion in a suspect’s mind and memory by convincing the suspect that there is:
evidence they committed the crime even if they have no recollection of it
there is a valid reason they cannot remember the act.
How is this done?
- the interrogator keeps stating confidently that they believe the suspect is guilty
- the suspect is isolated from people who can contradict or undermine the police’s opinion and such information is kept from the suspect
- the interrogation is very long and emotionally draining
- police keep repeating that there is enough evidence of guilt
- the suspect is constantly reminded of their lack of memory and/or blackouts to undermine their confidence
- police insist that the suspect has to accept responsibility for their actions even though they have no memory of those actions
- police attempts to induce fear in the suspect’s mind about the potential consequences (e.g. harsher punishments when convicted in court) of repeated denials
- abuse of other factors that might be present in the suspect such as a general trust of authority, a lack of self-confidence or, heightened suggestibility.
People who are most likely to confess falsely e.g. accusing another innocent person or falsely implicating themselves are either young people, those with previous convictions or, those who attach special meaning to a certain type of crime.
Why do they confess falsely? Because of the subjective probabilities of the perceived consequences! In plain English:
what the person at that time believed
to be the most likely result of their false confessions
either short or long-term.
Example of the short-term:
- If I give police what they want they will let me go home (naïve and young people do this)
- If I coöperate nobody will hear that I was questioned in this case (protection of reputation)
- If I tell them what they wish to know they will not find my juvenile record/previous convictions (naïve and young people do this. Seasoned criminals know police will find out anyway)
- I just want to get this over! (young people, those easily dominated or, intimidated by authority figures)
- The longer they keep me here the more likely it becomes that my family & friends will start to believe that I really did commit this act (those who fear disapproval or exclusion from a group)
- I cannot remember where I was but I know that I am capable of doing something like this (mistrust of self-control due to earlier events that happened while they were drunk, etc)
- If they can prove that I did this it must be true (blind faith in authority)
- If I coöperate they will not find out that I suffer from a disability (those with borderline intelligence who are ashamed of their disability)
- No court will convict an innocent person (judges always find the truth)
- The truth will come out eventually (blind faith in justice)
- The true offender will be found soon (blind faith in the goodness of people. Nobody will let another person take the blame for what they have done)
- My lawyer will correct all this in the morning (complete faith that the system always works perfectly)
- I did not commit this crime but by being incarcerated I atone for other sins or for undetected crimes (those not caught yet whose conscience is eating them alive or those whose faith/religion condemns certain actions such as divorce, homosexual relationships, prostitution, etc)
- I cannot tell you who did this; they will avenge themselves on my friends & family (gang related crimes, extortion, blackmail, etc)
- I cannot explain where I was. I must confess to hide where I really was (shameful or degrading circumstances. For example: at the time of the crime I was with an escort or, I was with my homosexual partner nobody knows about or, I was sleeping off my alcohol intake, etc)
I hope this explains why false confessions are possible without police using any physical violence.
Great resources to find more information about false confessions:
- “Only the guilty would confess to crimes; understanding the mystery of false confessions” by Douglas L. Keene and Rita Handrich
- The fact Sheets from the Innocence Project
- The work of Richard Ofshe
- The work of Gisli Gudjonsson
- The cases of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, Riley Fox, Jerry Hobbs III and Juan Rivera
Hat tip to Jacques for keeping me posted on the Martien Meijer-Hunnik case.