Is it a crime to be innocent?
False Confessions: Why Innocent People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit.
Would you ever confess to a crime that you did not commit? No? Most people cannot imagine that either. Unfortunately, numerous errors of justice based on false confessions prove otherwise. Innocent people confess to acts they did not commit. This article looks at the causes and effects of false confessions.
On November 17, 1989, the body of 15 year old Angela Correa was found in New York. Jeffrey Deskovic was a classmate of the victim and was noticed by police because he was late for class the day after the girl went missing. He was questioned several times by the police, some of them using a polygraph. After a while, Deskovic sobbed to confess the act. At the end of the last interrogation, he was curled up in the fetal position under the table, crying. Shortly after Deskovic confessed to the crime, he retracted his confession. The DNA samples (sperm and hair) found on the body of the dead did not match Deskovic's DNA. However, prosecutors filed charges based on his confession. In January 1991 Deskovic was convicted of rape and manslaughter. During his prison stay, Deskovic protested his innocence for years and fought for his freedom (for more information on the Deskovic case: http://www.jeffreydeskovicspeaks.org).
In the past few years, 268 innocent convicts in the United States have been released from prison after an exculpatory DNA analysis. In 25% of these cases, false confessions originally contributed to a conviction (http://www.innocenceproject.org). Research has also shown that confessions have a profound effect on the outcome of legal proceedings, even after they are withdrawn by the accused. In the United States, archival analysis found that 81% of cases where a false confession was made and withdrawn before trial resulted in a conviction anyway (Drizin & Leo, 2004). Most people cannot imagine ever admitting a crime they did not commit. Unfortunately, the last two decades have shown that there are always people who confess an act for which they are not responsible. Most of the documented cases come from the United States and England. However, there are also cases of false confessions in numerous other countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan (Kassin et al., 2010).
A prevalence rate is difficult to estimate for the following reasons: No current data are available. In Germany, the legal scholar Karl Peters and colleagues last examined more than 1,000 readmission cases from the 1950s and 1960s in 1970. At the time, it turned out that a false confession played a role in 7% of the cases. Unfortunately, since then there have been no more new publications that could provide insights into the current situation in Germany. In addition, it is often not possible to determine the (in) guilt unequivocally. Not in all cases there is clear evidence to uncover a false confession. It is therefore not possible to determine how many innocent people are held in prisons around the world who have confessed to crimes they did not commit.
Unfortunately, there is no way of clearly distinguishing between true and false confessions. Scientific studies have shown that people in general can only differentiate between true and false statements to a limited extent. The results of a meta-analysis showed a hit rate of 54% (Bond & DePaulo, 2006). If the test persons had decided on the truth and falsity of the statements by flipping a coin, the hit rate would have been around 50%. The actually determined hit rate of 54% is therefore only slightly above the random level. However, a survey found that people rate themselves much better. In the study, a total of 575 subjects in seven countries were asked about their ability to differentiate between lies and truth. They were asked about their own competence, that of others and that of police officers. The evaluations showed that the test subjects rated themselves in 66%, other people in 60% and police officers in 76%. Surprisingly, no significant differences were found between the seven countries. However, there were significant differences between the three groups (themselves, others and police officers). This proves that laypeople have more confidence in the police to be able to distinguish between true and false statements (Schell & Kassin, 2009). Unfortunately, this is a widespread misunderstanding.
A study by the American scientists Saul Kassin and Christian Meissner is revealing. They showed students and police officers video recordings of guilty and innocent suspects who denied having been involved in a crime. The task was to distinguish which of the suspects had nothing to do with the crime and which were trying to cover up their guilt. The students were hardly able to differentiate between the two groups. The police officers believed they could assess the situation better than the students. But the police officers' hit rate was as good or sometimes even worse than that of the students. There was also an important difference between the two groups. In contrast to the students, the police officers had a greater tendency to commit a typical mistake, namely to hold the innocent guilty. This is a risk for those who make a false confession. You might assume that police officers are able to distinguish false and true confessions from one another. Consequently, they believe that ultimately the truth must come to light, even if they falsely confess (Meissner & Kassin, 2002). Another risk is the waiver of the right to remain silent and the right to speak to a lawyer. In the USA there are the so-called Miranda Rights, which give every suspect the right not to comment and to wait for a lawyer to assist (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966). In Germany, every suspect has the right to remain silent under Section 136 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
However, scientific studies have shown that most suspects do not exercise this right to remain silent. In a simulation study carried out by Saul Kassin and Rebecca Norwick (2004), 81% of those innocently involved in a bogus crime waived their right to remain silent. A survey of police officers in North America gave identical results (Kassin et al., 2007). This shows that most innocent people willingly give up their right to remain silent. This can be disadvantageous under certain circumstances, because this waiver is often followed by a long police questioning. A study of American cases found that innocents who made a false confession were questioned an average of 16.3 hours straight (Drizin & Leo, 2004).
The taxonomy of false confessions
Of course, these statements do not yet explain why innocent people ultimately confess. Further risk factors can be found especially in the area of social psychology. Saul Kassin and Lawrence Wrightsman created a taxonomy of false confessions in 1985 with three categories: voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalized. The first category includes confessions made voluntarily, for example to gain public attention. When the baby of the famous aviator Charles Lindberg was kidnapped in 1932, more than 200 people confessed to the crime. Many were psychiatric patients who, in their paranoid thoughts, firmly believed that they were the culprit. Another reason for this type of confession is to try to cover up someone.
Forced confessions are made under police pressure during an interrogation. Innocent people confess to crimes in order to escape this interrogation situation without thinking about the long-term consequences. Often such confessions are triggered by isolating the suspect and using long and confrontational interrogation techniques. An example of this is the Central Park Jogger case in New York in 1989. Five teenagers who were interrogated for between 14 and 30 hours ended up confessing to a brutal rape that they did not commit. They later testified that they just wanted to go home and that was why they told the police what they wanted to hear. In retrospect, it turned out that all five young people were innocent (Drizin & Leo, 2004). The third category, forced, internalized confessions, describes confessions made through police pressure and recognized as true by the innocent. These innocent confessors then really believe that they have committed the deed. This happened in Kiel in 2006 in the Schwertz case. Wolfgang Schwertz had been 'boiled soft' by the investigators until he admitted a murder allegedly committed by his 'bad self', the 'wolf in him' (Friedrichsen, 2010).
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