Why do people confess to crimes they haven't committed? Let's set aside those who confess because they are intoxicated, have mental health issues, or just want attention. A significant number of wrongful convictions happen because police manipulate people into confessing, even when the evidence is inconclusive or just isn't there.
False confessions are not an insignificant problem in the U.S. The National Registry of Exonerations keeps a database that lists every known exoneration since 1989. In addition to numerous exonerations for reasons such as new DNA evidence, perjury, and official misconduct, the database shows that about 12 percent of exonerations involved false confessions.
That's the main message contained in the book How the Police Generate False Confessions by James L. Trainum, a former Washington, D.C. homicide detective. In the book, Mr. Trainum describes the techniques police use to get people to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit. These include:
1. Start with the assumption that the suspect is guilty and set a goal of getting a confession.
2. Tell the suspect that there is no doubt of their guilt.
3. Deflect any attempt by the suspect to deny involvement in the crime.
4. Posit a moral or psychological justification for what the suspect did.
5. Say that the police have physical evidence or eyewitnesses to the crime, even if they don't have such evidence.
6. Suggest two explanations for the suspect's commission of the crime. One puts the suspect in a bad light, while the other seems not so bad by comparison.
7. Get the suspect to agree with the interrogator.
8. Ask the suspect to provide details about the crime.
James L. Trainum notes that people who are under pressure and isolated in interrogation rooms often make poor decisions. Some think they will be released even if they admit to the crime. Others think that by confessing they will be charged with a lesser crime. Still others may be motivated to protect someone they know to have been involved in the crime.
The best advice for anyone who is in an interrogation room: Ask to talk with a lawyer and then say nothing more to the detective. That could make the difference between a prison sentence and freedom.