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The Role of Psychological Factors in False Confessions

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Would you ever admit to committing a crime that you didn’t actually commit? Of course not, says common sense. Naturally, it is difficult to understand why anyone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit. However, false confessions are one the leading causes of wrongful convictions.1 As the Supreme Court of Canada noted in R v. Oickle, innocent people are induced to make false confessions more frequently than those unacquainted with the phenomenon might expect.2

In North America, we can trace the existence of false confessions back to the Salem Witch Trials, where a number of women were persecuted for witchcraft on the basis of confessions that were obtained through torture and threats.3 More recent false confessions have been obtained under psychological duress and not with torture or threats of physical harm.4 Nevertheless, with the developments in law and policies in place to control interrogation methods, false confessions continue to persist.5 This begs the question, are  interrogation methods solely responsible for false confessions, or does some of the responsibility fall on the confessor?

Scholars and social scientists agree, that it is not solely harsh interrogation tactics that lead to false confessions but it is the combination of these tactics with psychological factors such as, intelligence and personality, which contribute to the likelihood of a suspect providing a false confession.6 While there are currently solutions for avoiding false confessions, they do not adequately address the needs of the most vulnerable individuals who are often induced into falsely confessing because of a combination of interrogator pressure and low intelligence or introvert personality. Therefore, it may be time for interrogators to adopt an approach that caters

specifically to these vulnerable individuals.

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1 Richard A. Leo, PhD, JD & Deborah Davis PhD, “From false confession to wrongful conviction: Seven psychological processes” (2010) 38 Journal of Psychiatry & Law 9 at 19 [Leo, “Seven psychological processes”].

2 2000 SCC 38 at paras 34-45.

3 Saul Kassin et al., “Police-Induced Confessions: Risk Factors and Recommendations” (2010) 34:1 Law Hum Behav 3 at 4 [Kassin, “Police-Induced Confessions”].

4 Ibid at 6.

5 Douglas  L.  Keen  &  Rita  Handrich,  “Only  the  Guilty  Would  Confess  to  Crimes,  Understanding  the  Mystery  of  False Confessions” (2012) 24:5 The Jury Expert 1 at 1.

6 Richard A. Leo, PhD, JD, “False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications” (2009) 37 J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 332 at 333 [Leo, “Causes, Consequences, and Implications”].

What is a False Confession?

A false confession is an admission to a criminal act that the confessor did not actually commit, sometimes accompanied by a narrative of how and why the crime occurred.7 In Oickle the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged that there are five classifications of false confessions: Voluntary, Stress-Compliant, Coerced-Compliant, Non-Coerced Persuaded, and Coerced-Persuaded.8

A voluntary confession is given without pressure from interrogators.9 A suspect willingly

gives a false confession because of a need to protect a loved one or a pathological need to be punished.10 A stress-compliant confession occurs when the interpersonal pressures of an interrogation become so intolerable that the suspect complies so the questioning will end.11 These confessions are often induced by the use of exceptionally strong aversive stressors such as, presenting the suspect with fabricated evidence or graphic images of the crime scene.12 Most cases of false confessions involve a coerced-compliant confession, which is the result of classically coercive influence techniques, such as using threats and promises.13 The non-coerced persuaded confession is induced using interrogation tactics to make the suspect confused, doubt their memory, be temporarily persuaded of their guilt, and falsely confess.14 Finally, coerced- persuaded confessions occur when the interrogator uses coercive influence techniques to persuade a suspect that they committed the crime, despite having no memory of it.15 This type of confession  normally  involves  the  interrogator,  attacking  the  suspect’s  confidence  in  their

memory and offering the suspect an acceptable explanation for their lack of memory for committing the crime.16 After the suspect believes that they committed the crime, both the interrogator and suspect construct a confession to explain how and why the crime occurred.17 The classifications are useful because they help others understand why false confessions occur.

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7   Amelia   Hritz,   Michal   Blau   &   Sara   Tomezsko,   “False   Confessions”   online:   Cornell   University   Law   School


8 Supra note 2 at 37.

9 Ibid.

10 Richard A. Leo, Wrongly Convicted Perspectives on Failed Justice: False Confessions, Causes, Consequences, and Solutions by Saundra D. Westervelt & John A. Humphrey (New Jersey, USA: Rutgers University Press, 2005) at 42-44 [Leo, “Wrongly Convicted Perspectives].

11 Supra note 2 at 38.

12 Ibid at 38.

13 Ibid at 39.

14 Ibid at 40.

15 Leo, “Wrongly Convicted Perspectives” supra note 10 at 43-44.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

Why do False Confessions lead to Wrongful Convictions?

False confessions have undeniably had a significant impact on wrongful convictions. For example, of the Innocence Project’s first 225 exonerations through DNA evidence, 23% of wrongful convictions were based on false confessions or admissions.18 This is normally because, once admitted, confessions are hard to get rid of, you can’t simply “un-ring the bell”.19 They are

regarded as the most powerful, persuasive and damning evidence of guilt that can be adduced.20

Therefore, they can have a significant impact on the decision-making process of judges and juries.21 While juries may be aware that false confessions occur, many people still believe that someone would never confess to a crime unless they are actually guilty.22 Finally, juries place great weight on confessions even in the face of numerous pieces of evidence to contrary.23 Therefore, a defence team is rarely able to demonstrate that a confession is too risky to rely on.24 Once given, the confession hangs over every decision made and colors the reasoning of the judge or jury.25



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