False Confession Syndrome: No Cure for the Common Confession?

Most of us believe that we’d never confess to a serious crime that we didn’t commit. But quite a few people do. According to the Innocence Project, about 25 % of suspects who have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence had confessed to a crime they didn’t commit. Youths and suspects who are mentally impaired (often because of substance abuse) are the most likely to confess falsely. This is especially true when you add in a bit of police trickery, such as when the police falsely say something like, “You might as well come clean, we found your fingerprints at the crime scene.” Police officers are even trained in how to give suspects their “Miranda rights” (including the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning) in a way that encourages suspects to waive the rights and start talking.

I’m willing to assume that when police officers resort to trickery (as the law allows them to do, within reason), most of the time they think they have the actual culprit in custody and that trickery is a necessary expedient if justice is to be done. But trusting to police officers to recognize when trickery will coax the truth rather than a lie out of suspects is obviously problematic. Maybe elementary school teachers have trained us more strongly than we think to answer questions, even if the answers are wrong and will get us into trouble. But false confessions are a signficant problem that leads us too often to convict the innocent while leaving the real culprits free to commit more crimes.

I’ll close by just saying that whatever you think I might have done, I didn’t do it.