THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FALSE CONFESSIONS AND WAYS TO IMPROVE THE SYSTEM.
by Dr. Gisli Gudjonnson
Most ordinary people find it difficult to believe that anybody living in a civilised society, who is not mentally ill or mentally handicapped, would confess to a serious crime of which they are innocent. I have assessed over 250 cases when confessions have subsequently been retracted. My impression is that the majority of such cases do not involve genuine false confession. Some guilty people retract their confessions because they cannot face up to that they have done. Some partly persuade themselves that they were somehow justified in committing the offence - a 'self-deception' which is particularly common among offenders who experience a great deal of shame for what they have done, such as sex offenders. Confessions can also be retracted because the accused is unable to admit the crime to his or her loved ones.
But I am certain that some of the retracted confession cases I have studied are actually cases of false confession.
The frequency of such false confessions to a crime occur remains unknown. One reason for this is that it is often impossible to prove with total certainty that the confession was false. But studies made of cases where confessions have been proved false by the discovery of other evidence have meant that the scientific understanding of why and how false confessions occur has advanced considerably in recent years. There is still a need for more systematic research into the phenomenon of false confession, but considerable progress has been made. This has come from experimental research into suggestibility and compliance and a detailed psychological assessment of persons who have made a false confession to a serious criminal offence. The research carried out has highlighted the types of factors that can make some suspects vulnerable to making a false confession and provides a framework for the future work in this very important area.
WHY FALSELY CONFESS?
Human behaviour is highly complex, with similar behaviour often resulting from very different causes. Furthermore, even for each individual case, a false confession typically results from a combination of factors, rather than one single cause. In particular it arises from the ways in which an individual interacts with others within his or her social and physical environment So, a false confession invariably results from a combination of factors rather than one single cause.
Results to date show that suspects who are not mentally handicapped or mentally ill can, under certain circumstances, make false confessions even to serious crimes such as murder. They can also show that even when there is a solicitor present during the police interview, and it is fully video-recorded, false confessions can still be made.
Some confess even though they had nothing to do with the crime. Some confess when they they were less involved, or less culpable, than stated in the confession. Some false confessions can arise when, due to perceived police pressure, strong remorse about what happened, or poor recollection, someone admits to elements of the crime when they were not actually present. Other reasons include: wanting to protect somebody else from prosecution, wanting the case over and done with as soon as possible, not being able to remember clearly whether or not they committed the crime, believing that there is no point in fighting the case in spite of their innocence, and believing that by confessing they
will receive less punishment by the court.
It has also become clear that suspects' apparent "special knowledge" about an alleged offence may seriously mislead the police into erroneously assuming suspects' apparent guilt. It is remarkably easy for questioners to unwittingly give or imply "special knowledge" in their questions. This information can then be given back to the questioners in a suspect's answer,
When discussing the types of factors that make people susceptible to making a false confession it is important to look at the theoretical implications of the different types of false confession as described in the scientific literature.
What is currently known about false confession comes from anecdotal cases, from research and from theories of attitude change, suggestibility and compliance. The work carried out into coercive persuasion among Communist interrogators has been particularly influential in highlighting the psychological mechanisms and processes involved and demonstrates the ease with which a person may falsely confess, given the right circumstances.
On the basis of such work and the psychology of attitude change, it has been suggested that there are three psychologically distinct types of false confession. These are referred to as (a) the voluntary, (b) the coerced-compliant and (c) the coerced-internalized types. In my experience these categories may overlap to a certain extent; for example one may find that more than one psychological type applies to an individual case.
Voluntary false confessions occur without any obvious pressure from the police. They are internally generated. Often these people go to the police after a crime has been reported in the media and make a confession. This type of false confession arises from many different causes, the best known being a morbid desire for notoriety. The person is unable to distinguish fact from fantasy; they need to expiate guilt feelings through receiving punishment and a desire to protect somebody else from interrogation and prosecution.
Coerced-compliant false confessions are elicited in a situation where the person perceives that there is some immediate instrumental gain from confessing falsely. Examples include escaping from a highly stressful situation, such as from police interrogation or confinement. The person is fully aware of not having committed the crime of which he or she is accused. Typically this form of false confession is retracted once the immediate threat is over, but this is not always the case.
Coerced-internalized confessions: of the three types of false confession, coerced-internalized false confessions are psychologically the most sophisticated because they involve a change in the suspect's own belief system about what is supposed to have happened at the time of the alleged crime. Like the compliant type, these false confession are typically elicited by persuasive questioning, but here the techniques used to elicit the false confession are usually more subtle and involve trust in the interrogator and the scenario suggested. Suspects are gradually persuaded that they have committed a crime of which they have no memory recollection, or suspects have become so confused that they
no longer trust their own memory and unwittingly accept the false scenario. The techniques recommended in American interrogation manuals attempt to undermine suspects' confidence in their own recollections and alter their perceptions of the situation. The purpose seems to be to play on suspects' weaknesses and vulnerabilities in order to elicit a confession from them. Such psychological manipulation may on occasions result in a false confession.
Voluntary false confessions, that arise out of a morbid desire for notoriety, are best construed as a pathological attempt to enhance self-esteem in persons who experience strong feelings of inadequacy. Those who volunteer a false confession, because they are unable to distinguish between fact and fantasy, typically suffer from mental illness, such as schizophrenia. The morbidly guilt-ridden individuals who falsely confess may be mentally ill, with the primary diagnosis being depression. Those false confessors who seek to protect the real culprit from being apprehended or prosecuted are typically least psychologically disturbed. Here feelings of loyalty to one's family, friend, or peer gro
up, dominate in their motivation to falsely confess. This group of false confessors are unlikely to retract the confession once it is made.
For those who make a coerced-compliant false confession, the primary psychological factor involves the need or desire to escape from a stressful or an intolerable situation. This type of false confession is best construed as a form of avoidance behaviour ( i.e. avoiding the stress of the immediate situation). Vulnerability factors include: unfamiliarity with the police environment, inability to cope with interrogative pressure and confinement, a disturbed mental state, and impaired decision-making.
The coerced- internalized confession arises, during interrogation, out of what has been described as the "memory distrust syndrome", where people come to distrust their own memory and begin to accept external cues, for example the suggestions and scenarios offered by interrogators. The critical components that make suspects vulnerable to this kind of false confession involve (a) the inability to detect discrepancies between what people observe about a specific event and what is subsequently suggested to them, (b) a confused mental state, (c) a history of mental problems, and (d) a lack of confidence in one's memory.
Regardless of the type of false confession, vulnerabilities have to be interpreted within the context of the overall case. Vulnerabilities mean that under certain circumstances these people may make a false confession and that special caution is therefore required when eliciting information from them. Even when vulnerabilities are prominent, they do not invariably result in a false confession. Furthermore, a false confession is unlikely to be caused by one factor acting in isolation. The psychological characteristics of the individual, and his or her mental state, interact with a number of other variables, including the seriousness and nature of the alleged offence, the circumstances and nature of the interrogation and confinement, and the subjective experience and interpretations of the suspect. It is most important to appreciate that false confessions arise within the context of a complicated social process.
REDUCING FALSE CONFESSION.
As argued above, confessions arise from a variety of causes and within any given case a person typically confesses falsely because of a combination of different factors and circumstances. Indeed false confessions probably never arise from one simple cause and I do not believe that false confessions can ever be completely eliminated. However there are two primary objectives. The first objective, within any given legal framework, is to reduce the likelihood of false confession occurring as far as is possible. The second objective is to have speedy and efficient mechanism for investigating and evaluating cases where false confession is suspected or alleged.
Attempts to reduce the occurrence of false confessions can be considered by three distinct means: judicial, educational, and psychological, and they can be applied to the three distinct stages in the criminal justice process, the investigation and pre-trial procedures, the actual trial, and post-conviction. These are some ways of dealing with false confessions:
A. THE PRE-TRIAL STAGE.
* corroboration requirement for gathering evidence.
* improved police practice and procedures.
* mandatory use of solicitors in serious cases.
* further research into false confession and psychological vulnerabilities
* greater involvement of psychologists at the pre-trail or investigative stage (e.g. psychologists acting as "appropriate adults" during police interviewing in certain cases, assisting the police and defence where appropriate)
* Educating police officers about the risk of erroneous testimony, including false confession, and improving their ability to identify suspects who require special protection in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice ( i.e. those who are mentally ill or mentally handicapped)
* training forensic medical examiners in the identification of psychological vulnerabilities and mental disorder.
* training persons who act as " appropriate adults" in the identification of vulnerabilities and their implications for the reliability of evidence.
B. THE TRIAL STAGE.
* Corroboration requirement for evidence
* greater exclusion for breaches of Codes of Practice. * instruction from judge to the jury about possible unreliability
* greater admissibility of expert evidence.
* greater availability of suitable experts.
* improved techniques for the assessment of individual cases.
* educating the legal profession about the nature and causes of erroneous testimony, including false confession.
C. THE POST-CONVICTION STAGE.
* Speedier and more efficient system.
* A review body for cases where wrongful conviction is alleged or suspected, consisting of relevant experts and legal professionals.
* Greater availability of suitable experts to assist with the review of cases.
* Improved psychological techniques for the assessment of individual cases.
* Educating the legal profession about the nature and causes of erroneous testimony, including false confession.
* training for psychologists in the assessment of disputed confession cases.
These lists are not exhaustive but rather highlight the kind of legal psychological and educational interventions that may be considered and discussed.
At the legal or judicial level, the two most important interventions probably relate to the development of corroboration criteria and the setting up of some judicial body, or improving the existing system, for more speedily investigating and reviewing suspected cases of wrongful convictions.
At the psychological level further research into false confession and individual vulnerabilities to erroneous testimony is needed, as well as improved techniques for evaluating the reliability of testimony and increased involvement of forensic psychologists at the investigative trial and post-conviction stages.
At the educational level there is immense scope for training police officers, those people who act as "appropriate adults" ( where children or people with a suspected mental disorder are being interviewed by the police under the terms of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984), forensic medical examiners, lawyers, and psychologists. At the very least the police and prosecutors should consider whether, and if so how, each interviewee may be vulnerable to giving unreliable accounts of events. A confession obtained from a vulnerable suspect may, on occasions, not be worth having.