Why do people admit to crimes they didn’t commit?
Of all the convicted people who have been exonerated by DNA
testing, almost 30 percent confessed to crimes they didn’t
commit, according to the nonprofit legal rights group The
What’s behind these false confessions? False confessions
expert Saul Kassin, PhD, discussed what we know about that
behavior at a congressional briefing hosted on April 29 by APA’s
Science Government Relations Office.
The psychology behind false confessions “is more difficult
to comprehend than suicide,” said Kassin, a distinguished
professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal
Justice. “Not having a similar experience themselves, [people
don’t] fundamentally understand that they can be broken into
doing things they would never dream of doing.”
His research helps to explain why people implicate
themselves. He’s found, for example, that vulnerable suspects,
including teenagers, people with intellectual impairments
and those with mental illness, are more likely to make false
confessions, especially if they are under pressure from
interrogators. Police are permitted to lie about evidence and
imply promises and threats through subtle but lawful tactics.
Kassin has also found that prolonged, sleepless
interrogation sessions and trauma can lead innocent people to
believe they committed a crime. For example, in 1988 Martin
Tankleff was convicted of murdering his parents on Long
Island. Detectives told Tankleff — who was 17 at the time —
that they had found a lock of his hair in his dead mother’s
hand. They also falsely reported that his father said Tankleff
had committed the crime before losing consciousness and later
dying. Both assertions were lies.
Tankleff initially believed he must have done it, saying, “My
father never lies.”
“False evidence is disorienting and confusing. And here is
someone who had just seen his parents bludgeoned, stabbed, and
lying in pools of blood,” he said. A New York State appeals court
vacated Takleff’s conviction in 2007 based on new evidence in
the case, and charges against him were dropped in 2008.
Once a confession is made, it’s difficult to prove the
confessor did not commit the crime, Kassin said.
“A confession is the functional equivalent of a conviction,”
he said. “Once a confession works its way into evidence, there
are no safety nets.”
Kassin has made policy recommendations based on his
work, including recommending mandatory videotaping of
entire interrogations, a practice that has been adopted by the
FBI, more than 20 states and the District of Columbia. APA also
recommended videotaping interrogations in a 2014 resolution.
— Stacy Lu
“Once a confession works its way into evidence, there are no safety nets,” said Dr. Saul Kassin at an APA-sponsored briefing.