The scandal of false confessions

One of the big problems in the US (in)justice system is that often the zeal of police and prosecutors to get convictions overrides any desire to catch the actual guilty party. One of the many ways that innocent people end up in prison is when they ‘confess’ to crimes that they did not commit. Confessions have a powerful effect on juries because they, like many of us, cannot imagine why anyone would possibly admit to something they did not do, especially when it is a serious offense.

But false confessions are unfortunately not uncommon and the 1989 case of the Central Park Five where five Black and Latino youths aged 16 and under were convicted of the brutal rape of a young white woman who had been jogging in the park is one of the most egregious examples. Donald Trump paid for a full page ad in the New York Times calling for them to be executed. He still refuses to apologize, repeating the fact that they had confessed as his justification for continuing to think that at least some of them are guilty.

Back in 2005, I wrote about one factor that drives false confessions and that is the plea deal where an innocent person is offered a lesser charge if they confess to it under the threat that if they go to trial, they will be charged with a much more serious offense. Police are actually allowed to lie to the person about the strength of the evidence against them in order to make them think it would be hopeless to fight the serious charge.

But there are other interrogation tactics that law enforcement use that are specifically designed to get confessions at all costs, such as breaking down people by extended periods of questioning under which people are exhausted and can say something just to make it stop. Police are also allowed to cherry pick and present just those parts of an interrogation that makes it look like a confession and omit those parts that contradict it.

On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver describes all the manipulative techniques that police in the US use to get false confessions that have ended up sending innocent people to prison for years.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    false confessions that have ended up sending innocent people to prison

    That would be bad enough in a civilised country.

    In the USA however it’s of course worse, because it’s one of those places that regularly kills innocent prisoners in cold blood. #shithole

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    He (Trump) still refuses to apologize…

    Not that meaningful when you realize that he never apologizes for anything. This is a trait of modern-day “conservatism” that I do not find admirable.

  3. says

    Combine this with systematic racism and “public outrage” (i.e. the more serious the crime, the bigger the mob wanting to hang the accused), and an inverse access to a fair trial (i.e. again the more serious the crime, less likely the accused is to get one) and you’ve got a perfect storm for legalized lynchings with the false veneer of “justice”.

  4. jrkrideau says

    I have been casually following the false memory syndrome literature for years and it can be horrifying. One of the really bad one was the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida.
    IIRC the shooter was kille but over the course of several days FBI agents managed to convince his wife that the shooter hated gays and that before the shooting he and she had driven around the area to identify such a bar—thus implicating her an an accomplice.

    I cannot remember how the wife was exonerated but the judge in the case had a few harsh words for the agents. It turned out that the shooter had picked the bar at random that night. He would not even known it was a gay bar.

    On a lighter side Elizabeth Loftus, when her early research in the area was challenged, retalliated by showing that she could convince many of her college student subjects that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. The problem is that Bugs was a Warner Brothers’ character.

    Interesting article on some of Julia Shaw’s research on the subject.

  5. John Morales says

    jrkrideau, bah.

    The issue at hand is false confession, not purported false memories.

    (And you’ve kinda got the opposite here: Loftus is a gaslighter extraordinaire; she testified for Ghislaine Maxwell and for Weinstein. Because, you know, false memories.)

  6. rup says

    Yes Loftus revealed some interesting stuff on this with her experiments I remember studying her when I studied psychology in a criminology course.

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