May 2, 2013

A Formula for False Confessions

The new Sundance Channel series Rectify revolves around man released from death row after 18 years, following a conviction for a crime he (most likely) didn’t commit. The scientific evidence, at least, says that. But one barrier to his return to the community is the talk, not all behind his back, that he must be guilty because he confessed to the crime. Whether that turns out to be true in that particular case is anybody’s guess (although I think we’ve already been tipped to the fact that he’s innocent), but we know now that such a “common sense” conclusion is often wrong.

Which is not to say it’s common. According to this report from the National Registry of Exonerations, 15% of false convictions include confessions. For homicides, the number rises to 25%. While that’s nowhere near the percentage of cases that involve false eyewitness testimony (43% of all cases), official misconduct (42%), or good ol’ fashioned perjury (51%), it’s still a significant number. At the very least, “but he confessed” should never be enough, standing alone, to convict someone of a crime, much less execute them.

But why does it happen? Not every person who falsely confesses is tortured or what have you. David Harris, a law professor at Pitt and writer on “why law enforcement resists science,” provides one potential answer, in an interview over at Psychology Today. It focuses on the “Reid technique,” the leading method for police conducting interrogations. It was developed in the 1950s and it science deficient, as Harris explains. But more than that is the goal of the technique:
The Reid technique for interrogation is not a process designed for the discovery of facts and evidence. Rather, it is a multiphase process, to be used when the interrogator has already concluded that the subject is guilty, and therefore simply needs the confession out of the person to confirm the guilt and prove it.

The interrogator determines guilt through a phase of interaction before interrogation, in which the officer ascertains guilt or innocence through asking basic questions and observing behavior.
However, as Harris explains, the bases for that determination of guilt are also built on sand. The result is a system that, while not designed to generate false confessions, isn’t designed to generate accurate confessions, either. The confession itself, regardless of its veracity, is the desired end product.

There’s something to be said for training police officers to be able to get suspects to talk who otherwise wouldn’t, to get them to hang themselves using their own words. If nothing else, it makes for gripping cop shows on TV (see Homicide: Life on the Street and it’s frequent scenes in “the box”). But the broad focus should be on ensuring the truth and accuracy of the resulting confession. False confessions don’t do anybody any good and can, in too many cases, put innocent people in a world of hurt.

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