The Problem of False Confessions
In police interrogation rooms across the country, innocent people confess to crimes they never committed—serious crimes like murder and sexual assault.
Usually, they later recant, but a confession is a powerful thing, not easily dismissed by jurors or attorneys.
Why would anyone admit to a violent crime they didn’t commit?
Professor of Psychology Larry White says legal scholars and social scientists agree that police interrogators can persuade innocent people to confess to serious crimes. He’s reviewed more than 45 cases involving questionable confessions, poring over police reports and watching hours of recorded interrogations on suspects for whom police have virtually no other evidence.
White wades into a handful of these cases each year, preparing a report or testifying as an expert witness. Rather than offering an opinion about the truthfulness of statements, he applies social science research to illuminate how social influence, individual vulnerabilities, and interrogation techniques can lead to false confessions. A widely used interrogation approach called “the Reid Technique” is the single biggest risk factor in eliciting false confessions from innocent people, White says. The technique aims to convince suspects that admitting guilt is in their best interest.
About a decade ago, White offered an expert opinion on the circumstances surrounding a high profile case with a contested statement at its core, one that is again making news during its appeal. The confession was given by 16-year-old Brendan Dassey in the case that riveted audiences in the Making a Murderer documentary.
It’s mid-June, mid-morning. White sits behind his desk in his bright, orderly Science Center office. He is barefooted. He talks about how he got involved in this work after collaborating on projects with Deja Vishny, a Milwaukee public defender who works on homicides. For about 30 years, White has consulted on the science of eyewitness testimony, but around 2000, Vishny urged him to think about working in a new area that needed his expertise: police-induced false confessions. White is a social psychologist who regularly teaches courses on social psychology and legal psychology.
I knew generally about the issue and the topic [of false confessions], but then I decided to get involved. That meant doing lots of reading, teaching an advanced seminar at Beloit on the Psychology of Interrogation and Confessions, doing some studies with others and publishing those studies. I started to get phone calls from lawyers wanting me to consult on these contested confession cases. The first time I testified as an expert was 2005. That’s when I felt like I was genuinely qualified.
White has since testified on 12 occasions in Wisconsin courts as an expert on the social psychology of interrogation and confession. He’s selective about what cases he accepts because his primary focus is on teaching and research in psychology, and advising students in Beloit’s law and justice minor program.
I consult on cases where there is no credible, independent evidence of guilt beyond what the suspect has confessed to. I tell the lawyers that I’m only going to work on their case if the interrogation was recorded, if there’s no independent credible evidence of guilt, and if the suspect or defendant retracted his confession soon after giving it. I choose to work on a case where somebody says, ‘Yes, I told the police I did it, but I didn’t really do it.’
White says most police interrogations in the United States take one of two forms: information gathering or accusatorial. The Reid Technique is the most widely used accusatorial approach. While it’s highly effective in getting guilty people to confess, it increases the risk of false confessions because it relies on tactics such as physical and social isolation, confrontation, indifference to claims of innocence, and hinting to suspects that they will receive lenient treatment if they confess. White says that lengthy questioning, sleep deprivation, and fatigue can add to the risk that suspects will incriminate themselves. Young people, people with low intelligence, and people with mental disorders are especially vulnerable to confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.
Investigators who use the Reid Technique sometimes use a risky tactic called the bluff—when they pretend to have evidence that implicates the suspect, such as fingerprints or an eyewitness. Research shows that every police-induced false confession is the product of three sequential errors: misclassification, in which police mistakenly conclude that an innocent person is guilty; coercion—the use of accusatory interrogation techniques; and contamination, where police pressure the suspect to provide an account and then actively shape that account by supplying the suspect with details about the crime.
White points to two important changes over the last 10 years that are helping to reduce the prevalence of false confessions.
Wisconsin is atypical in that all police departments record interrogations with either audio or video. (Nationwide, only some police departments do this.) Recording allows us to see exactly what goes on in the interview room, and it protects police from false claims made by defendants. There’s a record that everyone can examine. Second, some police departments, including large ones like Los Angeles, have decided that the Reid Technique is problematic. They’re going to stop using it because it induces too many suspects to confess falsely. There’s a very good alternative called an ‘information gathering approach,’ which asks suspects for an account of what happened, where they were, what they did. The detective acts like a real detective in seeing if the account makes sense and is consistent with other evidence. The information-gathering technique was developed by the military and the CIA in conjunction with psychologists and social scientists with expertise in questioning techniques. It avoids leading questions, whereas the Reid Technique is all about leading questions.
As our interview winds down, White scoots his chair closer to his computer screen. He’s getting ready to spend a good-sized chunk of this summer day watching the interrogation of a Texas man whose attorneys are requesting a new trial because they say his confession was coerced. White normally doesn’t work on cases so far removed from Wisconsin, but he took this one because of its high stakes. The Texas man, already convicted of murder, is currently on death row.
Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.
False Confessions: How Common Are They?
The overall number of false confessions is unknown, but Professor Larry White shares some current statistics about this phenomenon.
- Researchers have documented hundreds of false confessions.
- False confessions are more common in homicide and sexual assault cases than in other kinds of cases.
- False confessions or admissions were found to be present in 28% of 350 DNA exonerations by the 2017 Innocence Project.
- Roughly 12% of 2,034 exonerations involved a false confession or admission, according to the 2017 National Registry of Exonerations.