Saul Kassin is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Massachusetts Professor of Psychology at Williams College, and Past President of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is a national recognized expert on the psychology of false confessions. Dr. Kassin was a defense witness at the trial of Billy Wayne Cope.
In criminal law, confession evidence is incredibly persuasive—yet it’s fallible. Despite the pervasive myth that people do not confess to crimes they did not commit, the pages of American history, beginning with the Salem witch trials of 1692, pay homage to all the men and women who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, often because of false confessions. No one knows the precise extent of the problem; research shows that false confessions to police were a contributing factor in 25% of cases in which innocent prisoners were exonerated by DNA.
There are three types of false confessions: Voluntary, compliant, and internalized.
Voluntary false confessions are those in which people step forward to claim responsibility for crimes they did not commit without prompting from police. Often this occurs in high profile cases—as when John Mark Karr in 2006 confessed to the unsolved murder of young JonBenet Ramsey. There are several reasons why innocent people volunteer confessions—such as a pathological need for attention, or self-punishment; feelings of guilt or delusions; the perception of tangible gain; or the desire to protect someone else.
In contrast, innocent people are sometimes induced to confess through the processes of police interrogation. In compliant false confessions, the innocent suspect acquiesces in order to escape from a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. In these cases, basically, the confession is an act of compliance by a suspect who comes to believe that the short-term benefits of confession outweigh the long-term costs. This phenomenon was dramatically illustrated in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, where five New York City teenagers confessed after lengthy interrogations, each claiming he expected to go home afterward. All the boys were convicted and sent to prison, only to be exonerated in 2002 when the real rapist gave a confession that was confirmed by DNA evidence.
Third, internalized false confessions are those in which innocent but vulnerable suspects, exposed to highly suggestive interrogation tactics, not only confess but come to believe they committed the crime in question. The case of 14-year-old Michael Crowe, whose sister was stabbed to death, illustrates this phenomenon. After lengthy interrogations, during which time Michael was misled into thinking there was blood, hair, and other physical evidence of his guilt, he concluded that he was a killer: "I'm not sure how I did it. All I know is I did it." Eventually, he was convinced that he had a split personality—that “bad Michael” acted out of jealous rage while "good Michael" blocked the incident from consciousness. The charges against Crowe were later dropped when a drifter from the neighborhood was found with his sister’s blood on his clothing.
Inspired by tales of innocents wrongfully convicted, many psychologists have used scientific research methods to study the causes and consequences of false confessions. This research shows that some types of people are more vulnerable than others; that certain interrogation tactics can substantially increase that risk; and that police, juries, and others are not particularly good at judging confession evidence in court.
For more information, Saul Kassin’s web site contains a number of relevant news and research articles, links, blogs, and other useful information on the subject: http://www.williams.edu/Psychology/Faculty/Kassin/index.html.