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Psychology professor offers consultation, testimony on false confessions, eyewitness identification

January 23, 2014 at 7:53 am

When he’s not teaching at Beloit, Professor of Psychology and Legal Studies Larry White spends some of his time consulting with attorneys and appearing as an expert witness. He has consulted on more than 200 criminal cases in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, and has presented testimony on more than 40 occasions.

White consults and presents testimony on two subjects: the constructive nature of human memory and factors that affect the accuracy of eyewitness identifications, and the psychology of interrogation and the problem of police-induced false confessions.

One of his most recent cases involved a Minnesota man named Clarence Burcham, who was accused of the 1993 murder of a neighbor. Police interviewed the mentally retarded man in 1993 but didn’t arrest him until 2009, when a detective interrogated Burcham for six hours using the controversial Reid technique.

Named after former Chicago police officer John Reid, who later founded John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., a Chicago company that specializes in training interrogators, the Reid technique is a nine-step process designed to extract confessions from criminal suspects, according to White. The nine steps can be reduced to three fundamental strategies: custody and isolation, confrontation, and minimization.

“It doesn’t involve physical intimidation or yelling, but it’s a powerful technique in getting suspects to confess,” White said. “Unfortunately, the technique is so powerful that it sometimes induces innocent people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.”

Burcham was tried for first-degree murder in 2011, but he was acquitted by the jury after reading White’s report, listening to his testimony, and watching the six hours of recorded interrogation.

White believes that false confessions are a much bigger problem than most people realize. As of mid-January, 312 people nationwide have been exonerated by DNA evidence, and in 25 percent of those cases, innocent suspects gave false confessions or pleaded guilty.

Most false confessions occur when an innocent person makes self-incriminating statements in order to achieve some immediate gain or benefit such as putting an end to the persistent questioning or getting to go home. Some of the people most vulnerable to making false confessions are juvenile suspects, intellectually impaired individuals, and individuals who have poor memories or distrust their memory capabilities.

Instead of interrogating suspects, White asserts that a better way to obtain information from suspects would be to conduct an investigative interview. Whereas interrogations are filled with leading questions, investigative interviews involve open-ended questions such as “Tell me everything that happened” and “Can you tell me more about that?”

“There are better ways to do it, but a lot of police departments have gotten away from being good investigators to being good interrogators,” White said. “I’m not willing to say, ‘no, you can’t use the Reid technique,’ but its use needs to be circumscribed and used only in cases where there is independent evidence of guilt. Then again, if you have strong independent evidence of guilt, you don’t really need the suspect to testify against himself, so to speak. The jury can convict on the evidence alone.”

Larry White