According to a report from the University of Michigan Law School, there were 149 people who were declared innocent or cleared of their convictions or guilty pleas in 2015. The innocents had served nearly 15 years on average for crimes they did not commit.
In 75 of the 149 exonerations, it turned out no crime had been committed, e.g. accidental death wrongly attributed to arson. In 65 cases, the defendants had pleaded guilty to crimes they didn't commit. False confessions had been obtained in 27 other exonerations. In the latter 2 groups, the convicted were either juveniles, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or under threat. Overall, 75% of the homicide exonerations were explained by official misconduct of prosecutors or cops.
One of the most troubling aspect is that suspects often end up believing in the fabricated confession, thanks to the strength of false memories. To prove how easy it is to convince a person that s/he has committed a crime, Julia Shaw (University of Bedfordshire, UK) and Stephen Porter (university of British Columbia, Can) conducted an experience published in Psychological Science in January 2015:
Participants went through a series of 1-hour interviews over a three-week period. During the first meeting, the interviewer read two stories about the participant: one true anecdote reported by parents and one story entirely fabricated. In the latter, the participant had committed a crime (robbery, assault, etc) or suffered a major mishap (injury, loss of money, etc). The participants were asked to search their memories about the two stories and to provide additional details in the subsequent meetings. At the end of the experience, the results were quite impressive as more than two thirds of respondents actually believed to have lived the false story providing specific facts about the police officers they were supposed to have met. These details (visual, audible, olfactory, tactile ...) roamed the range of sensations expected in this type of interaction.
Why is the inception of false memories so easy? For the 2 researchers, false memories, like real memories, are reactivated by assembling scattered fragments, which have sometimes no direct connection with the story to remember. The credible fragments help to make the story probable: "what it might have looked like can turn into what it would have looked like, which, in turn, can become what it looked like," hence creating the false memories. A situation of stress facilitates the overall process by removing any possible reality checks.
It also appears that the art of persuasion of the interviewer is not neutral to obtain confessions. In 2003, two social psychologists, Eric Knowles at the University of Arkansas and Jay Linn at Widener University, formalized the approach-avoidance psychology of persuasion. To be persuasive, one must (i) increase the appeal of a goal (the “approach”), while (ii) decreasing the resistance surrounding that goal (the “avoidance”).
In a police interrogation, after preliminary assessments, the investigator’s tactic is to accuse the suspect of the crime, suggesting how and why the crime happened, usually based on presumptions rather than physical evidence that are hard to come by at crime scenes. The detective then initiates approach toward confession, the only way to close the situation of stress and put the mind back to peace by doing the right thing. This conflicts with the suspects’ (innocent or not) desire to avoid punishment, and creates indecision.
For psychologist Robert Cialdini, seven principles are effective to remove avoidance barriers:
These principles are powerful because they bypass our rational minds, appealing to our subconscious instincts. In the Shaw/Porter experience, the interviewer encouraged the participants to search their memories while putting gentle pressure similar to the ones used in false confession cases. The experimenter included false clues like "your parents said..." (unity principle); resorted to social pressure like "when they try hard, most people are able to recover lost memories" (social validation); provided signs of encouragement like nods or smiles, or signs of disappointment such as shaking head or frowns (liking); met in an adequate set up, e.g. bookshelves suggesting the expertise of the interviewer (authority). The results were so strong that the experiment was stopped before running through all the participants.
People tend to confess more when they believe justice will prevail. But in court, confession trumps everything, even physical evidence, as it goes against common sense that an innocent person would confess to a criminal act. Still, false confessions are not uncommon and result in ruined life for innocents, real criminals free to commit more crimes, and wasted prosecution resources at the expense of society.
Awareness is rising and new investigation techniques are being implemented. Canada and the UK already conducts non-accusatorial investigations, known as “Cognitive interview” and “PEACE method”, respectively, based on rapport building to get the suspect narrating as much as possible—with no suggestions made—and gather accurate information that can then be recouped. Liars have a much harder time to invent and keep track of details. Nevertheless, some deceptive practices, such as influencing to waive the Miranda rights, some form of reciprocity or other minimizing tactics, will be hard to entirely remove for the protection of the innocents. These new techniques are also likely to results in fewer confessions, which shift the burden of asserting culpability back to the court system, with all its benefit and shortcomings.
“Because power corrupts, society's demands for moral authority"
"Effective international police actions require the highest degree of intelligence sharing, planning and collaborative enforcement"Barack Obama
All characters used for our
video were drawn for the
by the Ledger Syndicate.
The strips were conceived
by Edgar J. Hoover, the
FBI director for a public
Published between 1936-38 in 45 papers, War on Crime is a somewhat violent strip which retells the demises of famous criminals in the 1920-30s, such as, Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, thanks to the FBI scientific methods.
Watch a step-by-step police interrogation showing refined manipulation techniques used to extract confession. Would you resist the psychological warfare?
The enhanced CIA police interrogation program includes music torture since the early 2000s. It is designed to "create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock." The Barney's theme song "I love you" on repeat for hours is apparently the most overused torture song. Can't think of how to brainwash someone in a more annoying way. That's cruel!
All visuals were selected, edited, and animated by SpareTag.com from the War on Crime comic strips to create the step-by-step police interrogation:
How to brainwash someone: Police interrogators are trained in the psychology of persuasion, considered brainwashing by criminal defense attorneys.
How to read body language: At first, interrogators are amicable, and feign interest in hobbies or lifestyle to learn the body language which will help to spot when the suspect is hiding something.
Everyone deserves a second chance: A guilty suspect is likely to show deceptive body language and say something like, "Everyone deserves a second chance" to transfer the guilt away from them.
The most famous police
interrogation scene. Here,
however, the manipulation
techniques are reversed,
as the female suspect is
in full control. She toys
with the male police
officers with her body,
especially in the climatic moment when she crosses her legs to reveal she has no underwear. No need for lessons to learn how to read body language. This sure is the best manipulation technique to obtain any kind of true or false confessions...