In more than 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty. These cases show that confessions are not always prompted by internal knowledge or actual guilt, but are sometimes motivated by external influences.
Why do innocent people confess?
A variety of factors can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation. Many cases have included a combination of several of these causes. They include:
- diminished capacity
- mental impairment
- ignorance of the law
- fear of violence
- the actual infliction of harm
- the threat of a harsh sentence
- misunderstanding the situation
Some false confessions can be explained by the mental state of the confessor.
- Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable – children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation. Children and adults both are often convinced that that they can “go home” as soon as they admit guilt.
- People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired cognitve state due to mental illness, drugs, or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt.
- Mentally capable adults also give false confessions due to a variety of factors like the length of interrogation, exhaustion, or a belief that they can be released after confessing and prove their innocence later.
Regardless of the age, capacity, or state of the confessor, what they often have in common is a decision – at some point during the interrogation process – that confessing will be more beneficial to them than continuing to maintain their innocence. >
Threats and coercion
Sometimes law enforcement use harsh interrogation tactics with uncooperative suspects. But some police officers, convinced of a suspect’s guilt, occasionally use tactics so persuasive that an innocent person feels compelled to confess. Some suspects have confessed to avoid physical harm or discomfort. Others are told they will be convicted with or without a confession, and that their sentence will be more lenient if they confess. Some are told a confession is the only way to avoid the death penalty
Recording of interrogations
The Innocence Project has recommended specific changes in the practice of suspect interrogations in the U.S., including the mandatory electronic recording of interrogations, which has been shown to decrease the number of false confessions and increase the reliability of confessions as evidence.
Here is how recording of interrogations looks in our five-state region:
- Arkansas has no state law requiring recorded interrogations.
- Iowa case State v. Hajtic held that the court “believe[s] electronic recording, particularly videotaping, of custodial interrogations should be encouraged, and we take this opportunity to do so.” State v. Hajtic, 724 N.W.2d 449, 456 (Iowa 2006). There is no due process or supervisory power ground for the court’s statement; this is a mere recommendation by the judiciary that recording of custodial interrogations should be encouraged.
- Kansas has no law requiring recorded interrogations.
- Missouri requires that all custodial interrogations of individuals arrested for committing or attempting to commit certain serious crimes shall be recorded when feasible. If a law enforcement agency fails to comply, the governor may withhold any state funds appropriated to the non-compliant law enforcement agency if the governor finds that the agency did not act in good faith in attempting to comply. Effective: 2009; Amended most recently: 2013. Read the statute.
- Nebraska requires law enforcement officers to record custodial interrogations at a place of detention in connection with crimes resulting in death or felonies involving sexual assault, kidnapping, child abuse, or strangulation. A failure to comply yields a jury instruction. Effective: 2008. Read the statute.