The Problem of False and Coerced Confessions: Why Many “Open and Shut” Cases Ain’t Necessarily So

[Part 2 of a series on: The Common Causes of Wrongful Convictions]

As incredible as it sounds, studies of wrongful convictions (in cases where DNA evidence was later used to exonerate an innocent person), reveal that in more than 25% of the cases a false confession or other self-incriminating statement was used as evidence by the prosecution.

This immediately raises the obvious question, why would an innocent person ever confess to a heinous crime that they did not commit? A number of factors have been identified as playing a role in why this happens:

1. Duress

The very fact of being a suspect in a crime, in and of itself, is an enormously stressful situation. Even without any additional pressure from outside, this stress can cloud a person’s judgment and cause them to say things which may be construed as incriminating.

Then there is the additional stress that can be added by outside influences in a couple of different ways:

A. The suspect can have grave concerns for a loved one or friend who may also come under suspicion. A desire to protect them can result in false statements.

B. Then there is the duress that can be brought to bear upon a person by law enforcement or prosecutors. This can range from what might be considered “reasonable interrogation procedures” all the way to abusive misconduct.

The shocking details that were revealed during the John Burge trial stunned Americans. The facts that were brought to light clearly demonstrated that Burge and some of his colleagues in the Chicago PD had employed methods that amounted to nothing less than torture in numerous investigations over a period of some years. A number of the people from whom they had extracted “confessions”, and who were convicted as a result, were later to be completely exonerated of the crimes. The whole affair sounded like the plot of a very bad police movie, but, tragically, it was all too real.

The Burge case was, undoubtedly, an extreme, but misconduct to varying degrees has been revealed in other police departments around the country. It amounts to systemic coercion.

2. Diminished Capacity.

People have also made self-incriminating statements because they were intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

In some cases, diminished capacity may be due to the person’s state of mental health. Either they have suffered from long term (“chronic”) mental health issues, resulting in disorientation or reduced faculties of comprehension, or the situation that they are in produces a state of mental anxiety. The courts have long recognized a condition of “temporary insanity” as a defense argument. Such a condition not only can cause people to commit crimes, but it can also lead other people to confess to crimes they have not committed.

3. Ignorance of the Law.

Some people have made self-incriminating statements simply because they did not understand their rights, or misunderstood the gravity of their situation. Wanting an interrogation to be over, or being fearful to be found guilty of a very serious crime, they can make false statements admitting to what they think is a lesser misdemeanor.


When you consider all these factors, it’s clear that a suspect “confessing to a crime” may be a far more complicated issue than the public in general, and juries in particular, might assume. “They’ve confessed, so it’s open-and-shut.” In reality, nothing may be further from the truth.

Needed Reform

One simple, basic procedural requirement will make an enormous difference. Video recording of all interrogations, without interruption, whenever law enforcement officers or prosecutors are with suspects, preserves the integrity of the process and protects the rights of the innocent.

More than 20 states have adopted this practice, and where they have it has been welcomed by police departments who see the benefits for law enforcement as well as for innocent suspects. But this practice is still to become universal, and it must be. It is both unacceptable and bewildering that all the other states have not already come into line with it.


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