False Confessions in Criminal Cases and What They Mean


You hear it all of the time; “You have the right to remain silent“ And? “And anything you say, can and will be used against you.” I bet you murmured the second part to yourself. Didn’t you? That’s because the phrase is so commonplace that you think that you know your Miranda Rights and what they mean. However, when it really counts in criminal cases most people don’t remain silent. The ingrained, inherent trust of law enforcement oftentimes wins out when it comes to self-preservation. This is a costly mistake, especially when you didn’t do anything wrong. Your belief that justice will prevail creates a false security and you  waive your rights. So, what happens if you don’t remain silent and worse give a false confession?

The concept of false confessions seems counterintuitive. Most people can’t imagine admitting to doing something that they didn’t do. False confessions happen far more often than you’d think though. In a study conducted by the Innocence Project, many of the nation’s more than 360 wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence involved some sort of false confession. That’s 29% of the exonerations by DNA evidence. Even though, while you’re reading this you’re probably thinking, “Why would you say you did it, if you didn’t?” That’s a good question. The formula for a false confession arises from any or a combination of psychological factors, certain individuals who are more likely to confess than others, and behavior of law enforcement.

The most common psychological factors that can lead to false confessions are feelings of guilt, pathological needs for notoriety or attention, delusions of involvement, perceptions of tangible gain, desires to protect someone else, cognitive inabilities to comprehend, and developmental inabilities to comprehend seriousness or process.  One example is when John Mark Karr confessed to the 1996 killing of 6 year old JonBenet Ramsey. Despite his confession, scientific evidence professed the real truth. He wasn’t the killer. His false confession is attributed to his compulsion for notoriety or fame. A phenomenon also seen when over 200 people falsely confessed to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. The other common psychological factors can be seen in the vulnerable populations that are more likely to falsely confess.

Juveniles and individuals who have a lower I.Q. and/or have been diagnosed with a mental disorder or as mentally retarded; those who by nature are more easily intimidated; those who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of interrogation; and those with prior interrogation experience and criminal history are all more likely to confess to a crime that they did not commit. The famous case of the Central Park Five is a good example of juveniles being more likely to falsely confess. In that case, five juveniles falsely confessed to assaulting and raping a woman; a story that has gained recent attention with Netflix’s When They See Us .  This case illuminates the most frequent cause of false confessions; behavior of law enforcement.

The most common behaviors of law enforcement that lead to false confession are isolation, confrontation, aggressive interviewing techniques, false evidence, lying about evidence, minimization, promises of leniency, and length of interview. These techniques are a form of psychological coercion. In Texas via the large Spanish speaking population, the interrogation of non-native speakers by officers who may or may not be truly bilingual, and who are acting as both interpreters, and interrogators, opens the door for coercion and possible police misconduct, even if unintentional (Coerced Confessions: The Discourse of Bilingual Police Confessions).

What if the confession is false? The Supreme Court has ruled that the Accused is entitled to a pre-trial determination regarding whether an individual confessed voluntarily and if it may be introduced in court. In Texas, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 2.32 states that the custodial interview must be recorded in order to be admissible. So, if you fail to remain silent and at worse give a false confession, it doesn’t have to be the smoking gun or nail in the coffin you think it is. You still have rights. If you find yourself in this situation, call my office to set up an appointment to discuss them.

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