Most people believe that they would “never confess to a crime that they didn’t commit.” And yet, 38% of juveniles who were later found to be not guilty involved false confessions1. The Innocence Project found that 25% of cases where a convicted defendant was later released after DNA proved s/he was innocent involved false confessions2.
Why would people ever admit to committing crime if they were not guilty? The interrogation methods used by the police heavily influence the statements of the people they are interviewing. If a person feels tricked, confused, or like s/he must agree with what the police officer tells them is true, a false confession can occur.
Police officers can mislead, confuse, trick, and lie to anyone that they interview. A very common interrogation method is to trick the suspect into thinking that the officers are on the suspect’s side and will help the suspect, when in truth they are just fishing for a confession. Juveniles and young adults can be especially susceptible to false confessions.
The “Central Park Five” case is a perfect example of the likelihood of getting a false confession from a suspect when the police use trickery (misleading suspects into believing their friends have already confessed and turned against them) and promises (telling the suspects they can go home if they just admit to being involved in the crime). In that case, five teenagers falsely confessed to being involved in the assault and rape of a woman in Central Park. All five were convicted and sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison. It wasn’t until a convicted murderer, years later, admitted to committing rape and DNA proved that he was the rapist, that the boys were set free.
In the early 90s, four Arizona teenagers were charged with murdering Buddhist monks in a case that caused international outrage. The “Tucson Four,” as they became to be known in the media, were interrogated for hours by the police and ultimately confessed. All four later tried to withdraw their confessions and said they were innocent. After spending months in jail, they were released because the police didn’t have any other evidence to connect them to the murders. Later two different men were convicted of the murders.
Recently in the news, the “Norfolk Four,” four U.S. Navy veterans, received full pardons and $3.5M in compensation from the state of Virginia for their wrongful convictions for rape and murder. All four men had falsely confessed in order to avoid the death penalty. The four men spent almost 40 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit; a crime that another man had admitted to committing just two years later and even though DNA proved he was the murderer. The detective in the Norfolk Four case was later convicted of multiple counts of extortion and lying to federal law enforcement officials.
The context of a confession is extremely important. Just because someone says he committed a crime, doesn’t mean that he did.