Why do people confess to crimes, especially violent crimes, that they did not commit?
False Confessions are Surprisingly Common
According to The Innocence Project, “In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions[,] or pled guilty.” AChicago Tribune study found that “one decade’s worth of murder cases in a single Illinois county [revealed] 247 instances in which the defendants’ self-incriminating statements were thrown out by the court or found by a jury to be insufficiently convincing for conviction.” How does this happen?
It is not illegal for the police to lie during interrogations.
Police tell a suspect they have an eyewitness and enough material evidence (hair, blood) from a crime scene to convict. “You’re looking at 20 years, or you can help us help you.” For the (unenforceable) promise of a lenient sentence, maybe only probation, a confession is signed.
False confessions also arise when multiple people are accused of committing a crime. Police play one off against the others, causing an innocent person to implicate himself and another to stay out of prison. “Your friend has already admitted to committing the robbery. You just admit you drove, and you won’t see the inside of the jail.” They make the same offer to the co-defendant, and two innocent people go to prison.
What if the suspect is not involved in any way? Police knock down the wrong door all the time. Anyone can find himself or herself at the wrong end of a ten, fifteen, or twenty hour police interrogation. So, you blurt out, “give me a lie-detector test.” Two hours later the cops tell you that you failed the test (remember: they can lie all they want in an interrogation). How about this: cooperate for now—after all, you had nothing to do with the crime—and sort it out later! Another feather in cop’s or prosecutor’s hat. Another false confession puts someone in prison.
The point is, even if the suspect has nothing to do with the crime,especially if the suspect has nothing to do with the crime, “cooperating” now and sorting it out later seems rational under the circumstances. A cost-benefit analysis points to confession when the police inflate the possible punishment as well as their potential influence on a sentence and then feed the suspect such ideas as “it was an accident” or that he “was provoked.”
The Central Park Jogger Case
Enough of abstract theories. Look at the Central Park Jogger case. Five teenagers spent between five (5) and thirteen (13) years in prison for a crime they did not commit yet confessed to. Each spent fourteen (14) to thirty (30) hours being interrogated. One sixteen year old had the reading level of a second grader, and another had an IQ of 87.
Don’t Talk; Demand a Lawyer
None of these people would have confessed if they had insisted on remaining completely silent until they had a lawyer. The police will also tell you that you don’t need a lawyer: “we’re only going to go over a few preliminaries, and you can have your lawyer with you next time.” That’s enough to constitute a waiver of the right to counsel if you then talk.
Do not talk to police without your lawyer present.