The Reality Of False Confessions

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Common sense dictates that no one would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, and that makes sense; logically, there are no circumstances under which an innocent person should confess to something that they didn’t do. Yet, in more than 25% of cases where the individual was exonerated by DNA evidence, a false confession or incriminating statement was given by the innocent person (Innocence Canada). Juries place a huge amount of weight on the accused having given a confession, their mentality likely being “I would never confess to something I didn’t do, so why should I believe that the defendant did? ”. The reality, though, is that the police can be incredibly coercive, and common modern interrogation practices have the potential to lead to false confessions. Being a suspect in any criminal investigation would be an incredibly stressful experience, and after enduring a potentially lengthy or aggressive interrogation, a suspect undergoing any number of stressors might see complying with the interrogator’s demands as their best course of action.

Mentally challenged or typically unintelligent individuals have been found especially susceptible to police coercion, especially when police investigations oftentimes involve deception—they lie about evidence that doesn’t exist, they make false promises of leniency, and confessing simply seems like a way out of the whole ordeal for the accused. It’s unimaginably difficult to discern why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit if one has never endured the stress of being accused of a crime and interrogated by police. The problem is that the very same forces that cause guilty suspects to confess—stress, isolation, anxiety, promises of leniency—can cause innocent people to confess (Wyatt Kozinski). Regardless of your innocence, it’s undoubtedly a daunting and stressful experience to be accused and interrogated by the police. On top of the existing environmental stressors, you have a perceived lack of freedom, and police investigators working together using many forms of deception.

The vast majority of Canadian police officers who receive training for suspect interviewing are taught the Reid Technique or some derivative of it (Brent Snook and Joseph Eastwood). The Reid Manual outlines an interrogation technique that serves to create “an oppressive atmosphere of dogged persistence” (Wyatt Kozinski). It goes on to instruct that “The subject should be deprived of every psychological advantage”, and “The guilt of the subject is to be posited as a fact” (Wyatt Kozinski). Police are instructed to perform interrogations that last hours on end and ignore a person’s basic needs, “pausing only for the subject’s necessities in acknowledgment of the need to avoid a charge of duress that can be technically substantiated” (Wyatt Kozinski). According to the authors of the Reid Manual, only people who are believed to be guilty are interrogated (Wyatt Kozinski), so when police enter the interrogation room, it’s with one goal in mind—obtaining a confession, and it is their duty to do basically anything within their means to coerce a confession. Unfortunately, sometimes the suspect in the interrogation room is not the guilty party. Under such duress, it’s understandable that a person could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. A person will start to feel like a criminal if they are treated like one. The Reid organization claims that over 80 percent of those interrogated according to the Reid Method confess. In order to achieve such a fantastic result, the manual outlines techniques meant to overcome one’s natural inclination to not incriminate himself. Suspects are isolated and contact with anyone outside the interrogation room is severely limited. The intention is to achieve the impression that he must face this ordeal alone, with no help from anyone outside the interrogation room. The interrogator tries to make the suspect believe that he is their friend, that they will try to help them if they confess.

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For example, when confronted with (potentially fabricated) evidence that seems sure to convict you for 1st degree murder, they’ll try to convince you that if you confess to the crime, your charge will be lessened to 2nd or 3rd degree murder, or even manslaughter. They will do their best to assure you that you will be convicted regardless of if you confess or not, and there’s frequently an implicit (or sometimes explicit) suggestion that you will receive a lesser penalty if you cooperate. The technique suggests that interrogators should overstate the strength of the evidence they have inculpating the suspect (Wyatt Kozinski)—sometimes non-existent physical evidence is invented, or witness statements are fabricated. During non-recorded interrogations, police might feed the suspect non-facts about the case sometimes incurring false confessions from stressed, anxious, despondent suspects made to spend hours on end in investigation rooms. Instead of helping the defendant, though, the only thing such a confession accomplishes is to incriminate them. In some cases, in the process of interrogation, police revealed details to the accused about the crime (Wyatt Kozinski)—things that only the perpetrator of the crime would be aware of.

The suspect would go on to mention those details in their coerced confession, and later, after they withdrew their confession, prosecutors would claim that the only way that the accused would have been aware of that information would be if they had, indeed, been the perpetrator of the crime. John Reid popularized the Reid Technique after he obtained a confession from then-23 years old Darrell Parker in a well-publicized case (Wyatt Kozinski). Parker was convicted of raping and killing his wife in 1955, and he was interrogated by John Reid for 9 hours before confessing to the crime. As a result of his confession, he served over a decade in prison before being paroled in 1970 when his confession was deemed coerced. 57 years after he was convicted, in 2011, a then 80-year old Parker filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit. The attorney general was in agreement with Parker’s lawyers’ statement, declaring that “Mr. Reid succeeded in manipulating and psychologically coercing the plaintiff into giving a totally false confession. ” He was fully exonerated, and was awarded $500k, and an apology from the attorney general. The very case that propelled John Reid into the public eye in the 1960s was itself a wrongful conviction. Now, while this was an American case, it is identical to the interrogation technique that is used today by the majority of Canadian police.

The Reid Technique has received much criticism in recent years, with academics chronicling commonalities between cases, discovering patterns indicating that these interrogation techniques are strongly linked to false confessions. Numerous convictions achieved using the technique have been reversed, as it’s been revealed that certain confessions were achieved under duress. Interrogators who go too far in their application of the technique are in violation of the Confessions Rule, and that’s what leads to confessions being thrown out. A confession is inadmissible if it is deemed involuntary for any of these reasons: threats or promises, the lack of an operating mind, or police trickery that unfairly denies the accused’s right to silence. Confessions are perceived to be the strongest evidence of guilt the State can bring against an individual. Mock and real world juries treat confessions (even one that has been judged as coerced) as more impactful on verdicts than other forms of evidence. However, there exists a problem such that current interrogation methods (as outlined in the Reid Manual) have a penchant for coercing false confessions. Police are instructed to perform interrogations that last for great lengths of time, isolating them and ignoring person’s basic needs, suggesting to them that they’re alone and the only thing that will help them is signing a confession. It’s understandable that anyone would confess under that kind of stress.

In the past, convictions have been overturned and confessions have been thrown out for any number of reasons, including but not limited to withholding a suspect’s access to water, to food, disallowing them from having bathroom breaks, interviewing them for unreasonable lengths of time, neglecting their legal right to counsel. It’s impossibly difficult to determine if improper coercion methods were used to extract a confession if video or audio recording does not exist. If a suspect who has already signed a confession goes back on his word and says that the confession was involuntary, that can be a very a difficult thing to prove; it’s effectively the word of a supposed criminal who’s already delivered a confession, against the word of the interrogator—and as I’ve already outlined, the police can be very coercive.

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