The Suspect Confessed. Case Closed? Not Necessarily, Researcher Says

March 04, 1997

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The days of bright lights and rubber hoses as tools to obtain confessions from criminal suspects may be gone, but the more modern methods used by police to get suspects to confess may be no less powerful. And, according to psychologist Saul M. Kassin, Ph.D., of Williams College, "available research suggests that the criminal justice system currently does not afford adequate protection to people branded as suspects and there are serious dangers associated with the use of confession evidence."

In an article in the March issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) journal American Psychologist, Dr. Kassin notes that the use of physical force to obtain confessions has given way to more psychologically oriented techniques, such as "feigned sympathy and friendship, appeals to God and religion, the use of informants, the presentation of false evidence and other forms of trickery and deception."

The most commonly used interrogation techniques, Dr. Kassin says, fall into two general categories: maximization and minimization. The aim of maximization is to intimidate a suspect into confessing by "overstating the seriousness of the offense and the magnitude of the charges and even making false or exaggerated claims about the evidence." Minimization aims to lull the suspect into a false sense of security by "offering sympathy, tolerance, face-saving excuses, and moral justification; by blaming the victim or an accomplice; and by underplaying the seriousness or magnitude of the charges."

While trial judges reject confessions that were elicited by explicit threats of harsh punishment or promises of leniency in sentencing, they often do not exclude confessions for which positive and negative consequences are merely implied, Dr. Kassin says. And the result, he says, is an unknown number of instances where people confess to crimes they didn't commit.

Dr. Kassin cites several historical cases of people giving false confessions to escape aversive interrogation, to gain a promised reward or because they came to believe they had committed the crime. The most recent and well-documented case of false confession was Paul Ingram, a former deputy sheriff in Olympia, Washington who "after 23 interrogations, which extended for five months, was detained, hypnotized, provided with graphic crime details, told by a police psychologist that sex offenders typically repress their offenses, and urged by the minister of his church to confess," eventually "recalled" raping his daughter, sexual abuse and satanic crimes that included the slaughter of newborn babies. There was no physical evidence to suggest that the crimes had even occurred, Dr. Kassin notes, but Paul Ingram was sentenced to 20 years in jail, where he remains.

While Paul Ingram may have suffered from an unusually high degree of suggestibility, Dr. Kassin describes laboratory experiments involving college students that demonstrate the relative ease with which innocent persons can be induced not only to admit guilt, but to adopt the false belief that they are guilty and even confabulate details to fit that newly created belief (at least in a low-stakes, non-criminal situation).

In the experiment, participants were instructed to type letters into a computer as they were read off by a confederate at either a slow or fast pace. The participants were warned not to touch the ALT key on the keyboard or else the computer would malfunction and data would be lost. In each case, the computer suddenly "crashed" and the experimenter accused the participant of hitting the ALT key. In all cases, the participant at first denied hitting the key (and none actually had hit the key), but half the time the confederate claimed to have witnessed the participant hitting the key and half the time the confederate claimed not to have seen what happened. The experimenter then hand-wrote a standardized confession and prodded the partipants to sign it. Overall, 69 percent signed it and 28 percent believed they were actually guilty. Compliance was highest among those who had been typing the letters at the faster pace and whose "witness" claimed that they had hit the ALT key: 100 percent of them signed the confession, 65 percent believed they were guilty and 35 percent confabulated details to fit their belief.

This is important, Dr. Kassin says, because confession evidence -- even confession evidence that has been withdrawn or recanted -- can have enormous influence on juries. Even when a judge rules that a disputed confession was coerced and not voluntary and instructs the jury to discount it, evidence from mock juror experiments suggests that jurors will often be persuaded by it anyway. "In short," Dr. Kassin notes, "confession evidence is so inherently prejudicial that people do not fully discount the information even when it is logically and legally appropriate to do so."

Article: "The Psychology of Confession Evidence" by Saul M. Kassin, Ph.D., Williams College, in American Psychologist, Vol. 52, No. 3.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

American Psychological Association

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