Explaining and Overcoming False Confessions

Explaining and Overcoming False Confessions

There's a misconception that once there's a confession, a case is as good as closed.

It's one glaring example of perception versus reality. Although admission to a crime strengthens the government's cause, there's no guarantee a substantiated or guilty finding will result.

Much goes into a legitimate confession. It's not a mere matter of getting someone to say it out loud.

False admissions of guilt stem from poor investigative practices, bullying, and overzealousness on the part of the government officers conducting the investigation.

Regardless, just because you've made a confession of something you didn't do, doesn't mean you can't be proven innocent. If you do what it takes to form a credible defense, your name may still be cleared.

Why Do People Falsely Confess?

The idea that someone would confess to a crime they didn't commit seems unfeasible at first blush. That is, if you're someone who hasn't been desensitized to the legal system.

However, once you peel back the curtain of what goes on during interrogations and investigations, it all becomes clear.

Let’s review an article called "In Case of Confession," which breaks down how to defend clients who've falsely admitted guilt. Discussed are the two main reasons for false confessions:

  • Physical coercion
  • Psychological coercion

(See Andrea Lyon & Michael Morrissey, In Case of Confession, Champion, May 1990, at 8.)

With physical coercion, investigators cause bodily harm to a suspect. This "breaks" someone into admitting guilt.

Psychological coercion is a more conventional method, and it's generally based on fear. Related tactics are isolation, playing suspects against each other, good cop/bad cop, and deprivation.

How to Prove Physical Coercion

Proving force was used to coerce a confession largely hinges upon obtaining photographs of an injury. Hospital records and before-and-after witnesses will go a long way in establishing the wrongdoing of any interrogators.

An example cited in the paper mentioned above: The accused someone signed a 19-page homicide confession under duress. Police explained that his injuries were due to him crashing into a tree while driving the stolen 1966 Cadillac in which they found him. Then, it was later shown that there was no damage to the car or tree, and the police were caught in a lie.

How to Prove Psychological Coercion

The article in question cites an example where verbal threats were used as a form of psychological coercion. In short, an accused was taken to Chicago River, at 2 in the morning, and asked whether anyone would notice an African American floating in the water.

In proving the false admission, the lawyers "recreated the atmosphere of fear" for their client.

It’s also necessary to get the officer to admit what interrogation technique they used during cross-examination. If that method lines up with coercion, the confession can be proven false.

However, building a case to prove someone’s innocence after an admission of guilt requires more finessing to be successful.

Disproving the Truth and Accuracy of a Confession

With concerns about the accuracy of a statement, a legal team must focus on the police's or social worker’s words. Also, the defense must emphasize what's being said by the client.

There's a need to prove there is doubt about precisely what was said by the false confessor.

This tactic is most successful with oral statements that haven't been recorded. Investigators can be brought into question for why the confession wasn't recorded by tape or in writing.

When it comes to crediting the truth, legal teams must focus on how the words of their client don't match other evidence. Or they should center their approach around how the interrogators knew the proof of the case before relying on coercive tactics to get their confession.

There is a Worst-Case Scenario

The paper I've cited does paint the picture of a worst-case scenario, namely where someone walks into the police station on their own whim. The police are all agreeable, and the accused signs a confession that lines everything up correctly. In that scenario certainly it’s more difficult to attack the confession.