Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Coerced False Confessions During Police Interrogations

Preventive Strategies

Richard Ofshe
Richard Ofshe

Authorities, researchers and the media have focused a growing awareness of incidences of coerced false confessions, as well as the associated personal and legal implications involved. The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic that assists those wrongfully convicted of crimes, claims that 8% of wrongful convictions are due to forced confessions prompted by police. Consequently, measures have been taken to try and reduce their frequency.

Training police interrogators how to properly conduct an interview of a suspect is the first step in reducing the number of coerced false confessions. According to an article by Richard J. Ofshe and Richard A. Leo, police officers are rarely "instructed in how to avoid eliciting confessions, how to understand what causes false confessions or how to recognize the forms false confessions take or their distinguishing characteristics." Moreover, few officers are trained to detect which people are most at risk for giving false confessions.

Richard A. Leo
Richard A. Leo

Some interviewees are more susceptible to giving false confessions than others, even under the slightest pressure from police. Children, teenagers, the mentally handicapped, drug users, and people with psychological problems may be the most vulnerable. In order to prevent such people from falsely confessing to a crime while under duress, it has been suggested  that a guardian or parent accompany them during the interviewing process.

Perhaps one of the best ways to prevent coerced false confessions is to videotape the entire interrogation. In fact, many state police departments throughout the U.S. are opting to videotape suspect interviews, primarily because interrogators will be more likely to follow ethical guidelines if they are being recorded. Moreover, videotapes provide a "neutral, objective record of what transpired," The Innocence Project's founder Peter Neufeld suggested in a Talk of the Nation interview with Neal Conan. It would also "eliminate a lot of miscarriages of justice" and "a lot of frivolous claims of police misconduct," Richard J. Ofshe said in a 2002 Indianapolis Star article by Shannon Tan.

Some have complaints about the use of videotaping. One major concern is that police coercion can occur prior to taping and can still lead to a taped false confession. Also, certain portions of the taped interview that may prove damaging to the interrogators case can be erased. Thus, videotaping is not a fail-safe method, even if it is closely regulated. Another problem with videotaping interrogations is that those who are actually guilty of a crime are less likely to confess if they are being taped. Regardless of its drawbacks, videotaping is one of the most efficient and effective ways to ensure that police procedures are being correctly followed during the interviewing process.

Peter Neufeld
Peter Neufeld

If there is adequate proof of police force during the interrogation of a suspect, the confession will be ruled inadmissible in a court of law. This is based primarily on the 1966 landmark Miranda rule, which was "intended to stop police intimidation and coercion," according to April Witt in a 2001 Washington Post article. But a forced confession is difficult to prove. In most cases, it was and sometimes still is the officer's word against the suspects. Often the officer's word prevails.

However, DNA evidence is now righting many of the mistakes made during criminal cases, dating as far back as 30 years. In fact, many of people previously forced to confess to crimes they didn't commit are now being exonerated based on DNA evidence.

 

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