Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Buddhist Temple Massacre

False Confessions

There are different types of false confessions, typically listed as voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalized. 

Among voluntary confessions, people sometimes just confess spontaneously: in 1932, when Charles Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped and killed, more than 200 people said they did it.  A decade later, more than 30 people confessed to the murder of Elizabeth Short, "the Black Dahlia."  Such confessions are usually done in high-profile cases.

More common are confessions that are coerced in which the suspects eventually comply to please their interrogators.

Ironically, Arizona was the source of the landmark decision in Miranda v. Arizona which established the rights of suspects to remain silent.  In part, the Miranda rights were established to prohibit the use of torture in getting confessions.  Any statements that are made are subject to an evaluation as to whether they voluntary.  If the subject decides to talk, the police are free to use deception and manipulation to elicit the information they seek.  Yet it's not always clear when that becomes coercion.

The third type of confession, coerced-internalized, is the least common.

People confronted with a crime may internalize guilt and even come to believe -- and even "remember"-- that they committed it.

An astounding example of this type of confession is the case of a sheriff's officer, Paul Ingram, in Olympia, Washington. Toward the close of 1988, one of his two daughters was pressured by youth workers at a church retreat to admit to having repressed memories of sexual abuse, so she accused her father of molesting her.  He vehemently denied it, but then his other daughter made a similar accusation, saying she had been raped at his poker parties.  He was arrested and interrogated by men he trusted who suggested he had repressed memories.  Even his minister insisted that he confess, and since he believed in the Devil's influence and could not imagine his daughters lying, his self-confidence wavered.  Ingram could only say he had no memory of such episodes. By the end of twenty-three interrogations across five months, Ingram began to believe he might be guilty.  With the help of a psychologist who taught him trance work, he started to experience fleeting images.  A memory expert, Richard Ofshe, later proved that Ingram had created these false memories, but he went to prison, anyway.

False confessions of this kind commonly occur under certain conditions:

1.) Sleep deprivation

2.) Feigned friendship

3.) Isolating the suspect

4.) Using leading questions or threats

5.) Exposure to graphic crime scene photos

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