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THE SUSPECT CONFESSED. CASE CLOSED? NOT NECESSARILY,
Even Modern Non-Violent Interrogation Techniques Can Produce False Confessions
WASHINGTON -- The days of bright lights and rubber hoses as
tools to obtain confessions from criminal suspects may be gone, but
the more modern methods used by police to get suspects to confess
may be no less powerful. And, according to psychologist Saul M.
Kassin, Ph.D., of Williams College, "available research suggests
that the criminal justice system currently does not afford adequate
protection to people branded as suspects and there are serious
dangers associated with the use of confession evidence."
In an article in the March issue of the American Psychological
Association's (APA) journal American Psychologist, Dr. Kassin notes
that the use of physical force to obtain confessions has given way
to more psychologically oriented techniques, such as "feigned
sympathy and friendship, appeals to God and religion, the use of
informants, the presentation of false evidence and other forms of
trickery and deception."
The most commonly used interrogation techniques, Dr. Kassin
says, fall into two general categories: maximization and
minimization. The aim of maximization is to intimidate a suspect
into confessing by "overstating the seriousness of the offense and
the magnitude of the charges and even making false or exaggerated
claims about the evidence." Minimization aims to lull the suspect
into a false sense of security by "offering sympathy, tolerance,
face-saving excuses, and moral justification; by blaming the victim
or an accomplice; and by underplaying the seriousness or magnitude
of the charges."
While trial judges reject confessions that were elicited by
explicit threats of harsh punishment or promises of leniency in
sentencing, they often do not exclude confessions for which
positive and negative consequences are merely implied, Dr. Kassin
says. And the result, he says, is an unknown number of instances
where people confess to crimes they didn't commit.
Dr. Kassin cites several historical cases of people giving
false confessions to escape aversive interrogation, to gain a
promised reward or because they came to believe they had committed
the crime. The most recent and well-documented case of false
confession was Paul Ingram, a former deputy sheriff in Olympia,
Washington who "after 23 interrogations, which extended for five
months, was detained, hypnotized, provided with graphic crime
details, told by a police psychologist that sex offenders typically
repress their offenses, and urged by the minister of his church to
confess," eventually "recalled" raping his daughter, sexual abuse
and satanic crimes that included the slaughter of newborn babies. There was no physical evidence to suggest that the crimes had even
occurred, Dr. Kassin notes, but Paul Ingram was sentenced to 20
years in jail, where he remains.
While Paul Ingram may have suffered from an unusually high
degree of suggestibility, Dr. Kassin describes laboratory
experiments involving college students that demonstrate the
relative ease with which innocent persons can be induced not only
to admit guilt, but to adopt the false belief that they are guilty
and even confabulate details to fit that newly created belief (at
least in a low-stakes, non-criminal situation).
In the experiment, participants were instructed to type
letters into a computer as they were read off by a confederate at
either a slow or fast pace. The participants were warned not to
touch the ALT key on the keyboard or else the computer would
malfunction and data would be lost. In each case, the computer
suddenly "crashed" and the experimenter accused the participant of
hitting the ALT key. In all cases, the participant at first denied
hitting the key (and none actually had hit the key), but half the
time the confederate claimed to have witnessed the participant
hitting the key and half the time the confederate claimed not to
have seen what happened. The experimenter then hand-wrote a
standardized confession and prodded the partipants to sign it. Overall, 69 percent signed it and 28 percent believed they were
actually guilty. Compliance was highest among those who had been
typing the letters at the faster pace and whose "witness" claimed
that they had hit the ALT key: 100 percent of them signed the
confession, 65 percent believed they were guilty and 35 percent
confabulated details to fit their belief.
This is important, Dr. Kassin says, because confession
evidence -- even confession evidence that has been withdrawn or
recanted -- can have enormous influence on juries. Even when a
judge rules that a disputed confession was coerced and not
voluntary and instructs the jury to discount it, evidence from mock
juror experiments suggests that jurors will often be persuaded by
it anyway. "In short," Dr. Kassin notes, "confession evidence is
so inherently prejudicial that people do not fully discount the
information even when it is logically and legally appropriate to do
so." Article: "The Psychology of Confession Evidence" by Saul M.
Kassin, Ph.D., Williams College, in American Psychologist, Vol. 52,
(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)
The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington,
DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization
representing psychology in the United States and is the world's
largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes
more than 142,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants
and students. Through its divisions in 49 subfields of psychology
and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial
associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a
profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.
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