Why False Confessions Trump Evidence

Perhaps the most blatant example of the title  is the case of the Central Park Five.  This case attracted enormous attention as it supposedly characterized “wildings”  that were taking place.  Here five black men were convicted of raping and brutalizing a young woman.  There is a video piece on this that I encourage you to watch should you get the opportunity. You will see how the police interrogated these suspects, not with the hope of getting at the truth, but rather at getting them to confess, which they did.  However, it was quite clear from the physical evidence that the police were intent on getting confessions rather than seeking the truth.  The physical evidence at the scene indicated that this was not a gang rape.  And the DNA evidence, which is regarded as close to a gold standard as one can find for legal proceedings, completely exonerated these five men.

One of the reasons that confessions are regarded so highly is that juries ask themselves “Why would individuals incriminate themselves?  Don’t they know about their Fifth Amendment rights?
If you have viewed or get the opportunity to view the interrogations of the Central Park Five  you will see the extreme pressure these individuals are placed under in uncomfortable conditions for prolonged periods of time.  Moreover, there is psychological research showing that people can be falsely convinced that they did actually commit the crime (see the healthy memory blog post “False Memories Leading to Confessions” ).  And they are told that the investigation will continue, so being desperate or wrongly convinced, they reason that eventually truth will out and that they will be exonerated.

Research has indicated why these false confessions are so powerfully persuasive.  Common sense informs people that people will not incriminate themselves, these confession contain credible narratives (which often are created during the interrogation process), these narratives corrupt other evidence and undermine the truth-seeking process.

So what can be done about this?  First of all,  people, police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and appeals courts should be made aware of this research and question the reliability of these confessions.  Interrogations should be videotaped and reviewed.  There are recommended procedures for these interrogations and these procedures need to be followed.

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