Observations, Politics-Government.

False confession? How is that possible?

In various studies of U.S. legal cases involving confessions, more than one quarter of the confessions are found to be false, and nearly all of those resulted in conviction. These same studies show high rates of suspects who waive their Miranda rights. Why would someone admit to something they didn’t do, particularly if they would go to jail or be executed as a result?  Why did they not avail themselves of the Miranda rights to refuse interrogation? 

As it turns out, U.S. police interrogation methods across the country are remarkably similar, methods that produce a high rate of false confessions, much higher than countries that have addressed the worst flaws in these methods.  U.S. interrogation methodology arises mainly from one source: Reid & Associates.  Founded in 1955, it is a firm specializing in training police in interrogation methods, and has provided most of the U.S. training for police interrogation methods since the 1960’s.

The Reid methods rely on a two step process, first interviewing a possible suspect and looking for verbal and non-verbal cues that the suspect is lying, and then, if the determination is that they are not being truthful, interrogating the suspect. The interrogation is designed to elicit a confession, since the first step determined the probable guilt, using various methods to keep the suspect off-balance, lying to the suspect about “facts” in hand, feeding the suspect facts about the crime, playing on their anxieties, etc.

Two obvious problems arise in this methodology: One is the idea that in a preliminary interview a person, trained or untrained, can accurately determine if someone is being deceitful about their possible participation in or knowledge of a crime. Study after study has shown that people, trained or untrained, experienced interrogator or novice, are terrible at determining if someone is lying to them; the typical outcome is a flip of the coin. The second problem is that, in the second step, the emphasis is now trying to extract a confession from someone rather than gathering evidence or information. The process becomes heavily coercive, with interrogator’s bias towards the guilt of their suspects clouding their ability to see possible evidence of innocence, and injects a high degree of fear and anxiety into the situation. Police and prosecutors around the world know that juries give very high weight to confessions (academic studies confirm this)  and in the U.S. very high weight is put on obtaining confessions in order to secure a high conviction rate.

Several psychologists and former police detectives have over the past thirty years studied the results and the methods more carefully, and make a strong case for changes in U.S. police interrogation methods, and at least one change in today’s prosecutorial and police guidelines, as defined by current U.S. Supreme Court limits: Stop allowing police or prosecutors to lie to their suspects.  Even more compelling, both Britain and Canada have, in the past 25 years, discovered similar patterns of false confessions, and radically changed their interrogation methods with an aim to eliminating them. They found that a coercive process heavily distorts the information obtained from the process; people are naturally afraid of being accused of something, whether they are innocent or guilty, and a coercive process can play upon those fears to gain false information from people who just want their immediate fears to be abated, and in a heavily coercive process, will too often even falsely confess!  Britain came up with a nationwide program called PEACE, for Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, Evaluate, a method modeled on journalistic exploration, and seeks to gather evidence and information, rather than seek a confession.  Their rates of false confession have dropped markedly.

Today there are some encouraging signs of these kinds of changes in the U.S.; some cities have started training their police interrogators with PEACE methods, but it is a very small number at this point. Even the U.S.-employed Reid technique incorporates a smattering of these newer techniques, and claims to be “using the latest information from legal, psychological and interrogation research” to provide “extensive updates” to their training methods.  But, as can be gleaned from this current advertisement for Reid training, it is still largely the same coercive method employed by interrogators trained to believe that they can ascertain a suspect’s guilt before they start an interrogation, one that is still focused on “extracting confessions from suspects,” and one still teaching the “interpretation of verbal and physical behavior“, well after psychologists, academics and other nations have demonstrated that such interpretation is highly flawed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve the puzzle to post a comment *