Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Are false confessions 'coerced' or persuaded?

A segment titled "Could Someone Make You Confess to a Crime You Didn't Commit?" by reporter Erin Moriarty on CBS News' 48-Hours Mystery last night featured two prominent Austin cases among other examples of false confessions, noting that "One quarter of those exonerated by DNA test results actually confessed to the crime of which they were convicted." The piece ended promising additional, future coverage to answer a "question for all of us to consider anew: Are we much more vulnerable to coercion than any of us believe?"

Considering this phrase "coercion," I was reminded of a recent post from Mind Hacks on "Hypnosis and criminal mind control in 1890s France" that said while research has proven hypnosis cannot coerce an unwilling person to commit a crime, a fervent belief in hypnosis is a not-uncommon claim among psychotics and "even today and your average inpatient psychiatric ward may well contain a patient or two who believe they are being 'controlled' or 'mesmerised' by hypnosis."

According to Mind Hacks, "The 19th century French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette is best known for Tourette's Syndrome," but he also performed research on hypnosis and criminal behavior and was even "shot in the head by a delusional patient who believed that she had been hypnotised against her will."

I think the lesson from modern false confessions and Tourette's example from Mind Hacks may be not that we're vulnerable to "coercion" so much as that people sometimes accede to their own delusions, weakness or misconceptions when the right (or rather, wrong) psychological buttons are pushed. In most false confession cases I'm aware of, police don't typically "coerce" a false confession - at least not using overt intimidation or "third degree" torture tactics as was common in Tourette's time - but instead in the modern era use well-refined, intense and manipulative persuasion tactics that are often effective but heighten the risk of false confessions.

That's particularly true among youth, the mentally ill and other vulnerable groups, but depending on the circumstances, as Moriarty notes, false confessions can even happen with average adults. (More than 50 people falsely confessed to Austin's Yogurt Shop murders, for example, not including confessions by the current defendants.) Police interrogation tactics are designed to push precisely those psychological buttons, which is all well and good when they're interrogating the right person but sometimes can lead to false confessions when they've got the wrong one.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Let's see ... my crappy lawyer, who does really seem too interested in defending me, says that if I plead out, I get this "deal", and since I have no witnesses, and it's comes down to my word against that of the "infallible" police, I think I better just take the plea-bargain.


My point is that false confessions are sometimes coersed simply because the person thinks that is the best way to protect themselves.

Anonymous said...

I think you meant to say your crappy lawyer who DOESN'T seem interested in defending you.

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as a 'deal'..

Anonymous said...

The plea bargain is by definition a coerced confession.

The ability to obtain leniency from a trial has been virtually eliminated in order to save money.

Anyone that asks the question "Why would anyone confess to a crime they did not commit? doesn't understand the dynamics of informed self interest.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's a really good point about the "coercive" nature of plea bargains.

My meaning was only that false confessions these days are seldom extracted using physical threats or third-degree style tactics like those found common in 1931 by the Wickersham Commission.

In a topsy turvy world where dozens of people may falsely confess to high-profile murders (only God knows why, though it'd be a brilliant research project for some academic to go do a bunch of oral histories and find out), we face a different, more subtle problem than brute "coercion" - a complicating fact which perhaps also supplies at least minor comfort that things may be bad, but they've been worse. Some perspective is required.

Sojourner said...

I think hypnosis is a highly likely and credible defense in such a situation. It makes no sense why it's not used more. When people are traumatized, some of them learn to deal with this by dissociating. Dissociation is just another word for self-hypnosis. Such people are very easily hypnotized. So the intersection of previous trauma and strong insistence could easily result in a hypnosis-induced confession. PTSD has really gotten a bad rap in the court room. Ironicially, the VA is at the cutting edge of research into PTSD - and has determined it's very real. Something that happens with PTSD is that the hypocampus - which holds narrative memory - gets much smaller. This means people with PTSD may be confused about certain facts. If these people also are prone to self-hypnosis - also called dissociation - they are also very vulnerable to being 'hypnotized' (whether intentionally or not) by coercive parties, such as police interviewers.

Sojourner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sojourner said...

In some death penalty convictions on false confessions from very traumatized later exonerated defendants, it's pretty clear the police are going out and looking for vulnerable people, and exploiting this vulnerability. Such a case is described persuasively in "The Dreams of Ada" re the Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot case, as well as in John Grisham's "The Innocent Man" which describes the Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz tragic false conviction.

Sojourner said...

I'd like to add that without addressing the very real existence of PTSD, dissociation, self-hypnosis, and impaired narrative memory, as well as addressing how it makes traumatized people act in stressful situations, we are allowing law enforcement to engage in a predatory relationship with the most vulnerable in our society. Really disgusting behavior on the part of the 'justice' system. Similarly vulnerable people include of course the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, as well as people on the asperger's/autistic spectrum.

Ironically, the 'justice system's' disdain for PTSD as an explanation of behavior likely has caused much unnecessary suffering on the part of many police officers who should get treated for the effects of trauma. This probably contributes to problems of police brutality. Not properly acknowledging the effects of PTSD and pressuring cops to maintain the 'thin blue line' of silence about corruption and brutality are huge contributors to the high police suicide rate.

Boyness said...

If confessions are obtained by the cops, they are coerced. That's all it can be when people with guns, badges and the authority to take your freedom are asking the questions.

Most pleas bargains are also coerced by DA's who will lie about evidence, lie about witnesses, lie about everything in order to scare you into a plea bargain. Your defense attorney may then help the DA by persuading you to take the plea.

In my opinion there are not enough jury trials and this is because the system scares the hell out of defendants.

Hypnotist seeker said...

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Thanks