False Confessions and The Call for Justice

The call for justice in the event of a crime is a universal desire. Society wants “bad people” off of the streets. Victims and their loved ones want justice and for those responsible to pay accordingly for their crimes. Considering that most criminals don’t simply confess, it is necessary that law enforcement conducts interrogations of potential suspects to determine who is guilty. However, the justice system, like any other system, has its flaws. There are interrogation techniques that are highly controversial and may be considered borderline coercion. There are interrogation techniques that have been found responsible for leading people to admit guilt to a crime they did not actually commit. False confessions are more common than most expect. We as a society crave justice so badly, but what happens when those found guilty are actually innocent?

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The history of American interrogation techniques is unfortunately a dark one. In 1897, the Supreme Court ruled against involuntary confessions. However, little changed until the 1930s. Techniques used prior to this time were considered nearly torturous. This could include the deprivation of food and water, those being questioned may be beaten with rubber hoses and other items that wouldn’t leave visible marks, and those interrogated may have experienced isolation for long periods of time. These techniques were considered admissible as long as the suspect signed a waiver stating that the confession was voluntary. 

In 1929 under the presidency of Herbert Hoover, the Wickersham Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement was established. This commission was in charge of overseeing and surveying the American judicial system. It was initially established in an attempt to resolve the divide in the United States during prohibition. During this time, organized crime had skyrocketed due to prohibition laws and gang activity. The Wickersham Commission surveyed law enforcement and its techniques on a national level. In 1931, the Wickersham Commission presented its findings to the Supreme Court which consisted of evidence that shined a light on the then-corrupt police interrogation system. The Supreme Court ruled against involuntary confessions, but this did not stop the brutal and unjust interrogations from taking place.

In 1934, a white man named Raymond Stuart was murdered in Kemper County, Mississippi. The police interrogated three black men: Henry Shields, Arthur Ellington, and Ed Brown. During these interrogations, the three men were whipped by police repeatedly. One of the men was even hung from a tree by his neck as he was brutally whipped. The three men were told that the whippings would only cease after they confessed to committing the murder of Raymond Stuart. Nevertheless, the men confessed and the confessions were admitted into evidence. All three of the men were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. However, the confessions of the three men were found to violate their Fourteenth Amendment rights, and that their confessions were involuntary. The three men appeared and pleaded no contest to a charge of manslaughter. The case of Brown vs. Mississippi resulted in a slow, yet progressive change in the judicial system and the interrogation techniques that should and should not be allowed.

With abusive and violent techniques no longer being allowed in the police interrogation process, why do false confessions still exist? Why would someone admit guilt to a crime that they didn’t commit? Research shows that there are many reasons that someone might. Suspects may have a perceived threat or intimidation from law enforcement to confess. Those who are less educated or those who are juveniles may not know or understand their rights during an interrogation. Suspects may have mental impairments due to substance abuse or mental limitations due to illness. Some may even be told that they will suffer a greater punishment if they don’t confess.

As previously mentioned, one demographic that is especially susceptible to giving a false confession is juveniles. The National Registry of Exonerations reported in 2013 that “in the past 25 years, 38% of the exonerations of crimes allegedly committed by youth involved false confessions.”  This may not only be a result of juveniles not being familiar with their legal rights. It may also be a result of the promise of leniency should they confess. Those conducting the interrogation may lie and be deceptive about evidence that may or may not exist. Also, juveniles may not have a parent or an attorney present while being interviewed. Those who are intellectually vulnerable during an interrogation that is typically designed and geared toward convicting adults who have committed crimes are much more likely to give a false confession.

The interrogation process that is used to try to draw out a confession from a criminal is a methodical and psychological one. The most popular and most widely practiced interrogation technique is The Reid Technique. It was developed in the 1950s by a psychologist and polygraph expert, John E. Reid. The technique was developed when Reid aided in gaining a confession from a man suspected of murdering his wife. The man suspected of the murder, Darrel Parker, confessed and then recanted his confession the very next day. However, the confession was admitted as evidence during his trial and he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. However, Parker was later found innocent when another man confessed to the murder. He was freed and received compensation from the state of Nebraska. Despite Parker’s false confession, John E. Reid’s interrogation technique was applauded and taught to law enforcement as an effective interrogation technique. 

The Reid Technique is a process that consists of three phases; fact-analysis, behavioral analysis, and then the 9-steps of The Reid Technique. The first step of the Reid technique is “positive confrontation.” During this step, the investigator acts sympathetic toward the suspect and emphasizes their desire to work with the suspect, and may offer leniency. The police officer conducting the interrogation will convince the suspect that they have reliable evidence or eye-witnesses that deam the suspect as the perpetrator of the crime. This could potentially be a lie created by the investigator in order to gain the confession.

The second step is “theme development.” This is the attempt to take the blame off of the suspect, and instead, create a theory of why the crime may have taken place. This can involve the investigator presenting a theory of a possible situation or circumstance that would justify the crime occurring. This step is a psychological maneuver to shift the blame from the suspect and instead place it on someone or something else. This results in making the suspect even more comfortable with the investigator. Therefore, the suspect is more likely to confess to the crime.

The third step of The Reid Technique is “handling denials.” Practitioners of The Reid Technique suggest that guilty persons upon denying the crime will ask permission to speak with statements such as, “may I just say something?” If given the chance to speak their full denial, it is more difficult for the suspect to admit guilt. During this step, the interrogating officer will interrupt the suspect’s desire to deny the allegations and instead present the investigator’s theory of how and why the crime occurred. Practitioners of The Reid Technique claim that innocent suspects will never ask permission before denying the allegations and that their denials will only strengthen over the course of the interrogation.

The fourth step is “overcoming objections.” During this step, the suspect realizes their attempt to deny committing the crime is unsuccessful. The suspect will then present objective suggestions as to why they couldn’t or wouldn’t have committed the crime. The objections offered by the suspect have been categorized into three general groups; an emotional objection (“I love them, I could never hurt them”), a factual objection (“I wouldn’t even know how to do something like that”), or a moral objection (“I’m a religious person”). The investigator will act as if this objection presented by the suspect is not surprising and expected. The suspect presenting this information and having it not surprise the investigator is even further discouraging, causing the suspect to realize that their continuation of denial isn’t working. It is during this step that many suspects emotionally withdraw from the interrogation and at times begin to reflect on the punishment that may result from their confessing to the crime.

The fifth step is “procurement and retention of the suspect’s attention.” Advocates for The Reid Technique claim that a suspect who is innocent will never make it to the fifth step. During this step, the officer conducting the interrogation will physically move closer to the suspect, leaning closer to them and obstructing their personal, and social space. At this time the investigator will repeat their theory of how the crime occurred and the suspect’s reasoning for committing it. The suspect that was previously withdrawn has no choice but to listen to the investigator’s theory. The investigator will emphasize certain key elements in their theory and begins to break the theory down into probable alternative components.

The sixth step is “handling the suspect’s passive mood.” At this point of the interrogation, the officer is reciting the key elements in their theory of why the suspect committed the crime. The suspect is oftentimes feeling defeated by this step. Practitioners of The Reid Technique mention that by this step, suspects may cry or present themselves in a defeated manner. In this case, the investigator may suggest that the tears or the defeated position they are exhibiting are a sign of guilt and may even praise the suspect for coming to terms with being guilty. The officer conducting the investigation is especially sympathetic during this step and may even console the suspect.

The seventh step is “presenting an alternative question.” At this time the investigator will present a question in a way that insinuates that the suspect in fact committed the crime, but the question isn’t directly asking if the suspect actually did it. For example, the person conducting the interrogation may ask, “was this something that you planned, or was it a spur-of-the-moment choice? Was it a split-second decision?” of “was this the first time you did it, or have you done this before?” The question is asked in such a way that no matter which way that the suspect answers, it’s considered incriminating. More often than not, the question is phrased in a way that gives the suspect a chance of answer using either as few words as possible, or they have the chance to answer by simply shaking their head yes or no.

The eighth step is “having the suspect orally relate various details of the offense.” At this point, the suspect has accepted and answered to the “alternative question” asked by the investigator. This is considered an admission of guilt. The investigator will then often ask either-or questions that don’t allow the suspect to withdraw their admission. For example, the investigator may ask questions such as, “did you drive there yourself or did you get dropped off?” or “did you break the window with a rock to get in the house or did you use a bat?” The investigator may then go over the alternative statements given by the suspect earlier and continue to press their theory of what they believe occurred. The suspect’s body language and behavior are observed by the investigator at this time. Any indication of the suspect acting deceptively opens the door for the investigator to continue to ask questions, perhaps rephrasing them. This continues to give the suspect a chance to answer questions that aid in building the theme of the crime.

The ninth and final step of The Reid Technique is “converting an oral confession into a written confession.” This can be accomplished in several ways. The confession may be written by the suspect themselves. The confession may even be written by the investigator and then the suspect may read and sign it. A stenographer may write the confession which is then presented to the suspect, read, and signed. Finally, a videotaped or a tape-recorded confession may also be acceptable alone.

Critics of The Reid Technique argue that The Reid Technique overwhelms suspects psychologically and corners them into believing that perhaps admitting guilt is their best option. This is asserted by the small, claustrophobic interrogation room, the invasion of personal space, and the evidence that the investigator has proved the suspect’s guilt that may or may not actually exist. The Reid Technique is not as commonly taught as it once was due to its ability to attract false confessions.

To date, there have been 367 exonerations in the United States using DNA testing. In 41 of those exonerations, the person admitted guilt to a crime they did not commit. When anyone is asked the question, “would you admit to a crime that you didn’t commit,” it’s met with an assertive and hard “no.” However, when faced with methodical techniques such as The Reid Technique alone, it’s not impossible to understand how someone may give a false confession. Pair that understanding to a juvenile, someone with poor knowledge of their rights, or someone with a mental disability being interrogated. It’s more apparent that false confessions are more common than a society driven for justice understands. 

07 July 2022

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