Friday, April 25, 2014

Anatomy of a false confession

At the Austin Chronicle, Jordan Smith has an excellent, extended story on an Austin case involving a husband who falsely confessed to murdering his wife, only to have DNA exculpate him. The whole article is well worth reading but here's a notable excerpt describing research about how and why false confessions occur:
The problem with false confessions, experts say, is that many people – even people within the criminal justice system – find it hard to comprehend that a person would actually admit to something that he didn't do. But it happens, and not rarely. According to the Innocence Project, 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence involve a false confession. And many of those confessions actually contain details that match the crime – details that were not in the public domain, says Saul Kassin, a social psychologist and expert in false confessions who is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The problem is that all of those details are already known to police, and through the process of interrogation those details can, and do, shape a person's confession, with police – purposely or inadvertently – divulging details of the crime.

Once a confession is made, it's incredibly powerful, say Kassin and others who study false confessions and the tactics that lead to them; jurors often consider a confession infallible evidence, he explains, even though research clearly demonstrates that is not always the case. Among the most vulnerable suspects are those actually innocent, Kassin points out – in many ways, innocence is their enemy. "When I ask innocent people, 'First of all, why didn't you lawyer up?' they tilt their head and look at me like I'm crazy ... and say, 'Well, I didn't need a lawyer, I didn't do anything wrong,'" he says. "They volunteer to take lie detector tests, they volunteer their keys, their shoes, their cars, and they just don't apprehend that there is any risk. And their explanation is as simple as, 'I didn't do anything wrong, I have nothing to do with it, I have nothing to fear, I have nothing to hide – in fact, the more they get to know me, the more they'll see that I didn't do it,'" he continues. "People believe in the transparency of their innocence."

The problem can be compounded by the fact that police generally believe they have a good sense for determining which of the people they encounter during an investigation should be elevated to suspect status. In fact, according to research done by both Kassin and by Iowa State University psychology professor Christian Meissner and others, police are actually no better at determining who is lying to them than are untrained laypeople. Indeed, some of the signs police are trained to believe indicate deception, and techniques they're taught to use in interrogations, may negatively impact their ability to determine lies from truth.

The dominant method of interrogation used in the U.S. is known as the Reid Technique, named after its originator, former Chicago cop John Reid. It's an adversarial and persuasive technique designed to yield compliance from suspects – police are taught to assess in a first interview whether a person should be considered a suspect and then, once that determination is made, to not allow the suspect any ability to deny their involvement in the crime. "It is an excellent ... psychological approach to getting confessions from criminals," Kassin says. "I think the problem begins with this. I always say this: If every person interrogated was the criminal, the Reid Technique would be perfect. The problem is [police] often bring innocent people into the interrogation room." (In fact, during one early use of the technique by Reid himself, a false confession was extracted from a man whose wife had been murdered; it took more than five decades for the man to be exonerated.)

Police have long been taught, for example, that nonverbal cues, like hair touching, leg bouncing, and shifting eye movements, indicate deception. The research says otherwise. "These things ... are in the folklore of police training," says Meissner, but "there is plenty of research to show that they're not reliable." Also problematic are techniques police are allowed to use inside the interrogation room – including techniques that "manipulate the perception of consequences," says Melissa Russano, a professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams Univer­si­ty. Specifically including lying to a person about evidence – saying that a fingerprint or DNA ties a person to a crime, when in fact no such evidence exists – or implying leniency, "stressing the importance of cooperation [with police] ... [suggesting] if you cooperate, things will be better for you and if you don't, things are going to get worse," Russano details.

Taken together, investigation detail leakage, faulty assumptions about who is lying, and heavy-handed, perception-altering interrogation tactics increase the likelihood of a false confession.
According to Russano, current research reflects that the heavy-handed tactics traditionally taught to police investigators are less effective and riskier than more information-based approaches, in which detectives use investigative interviewing and rapport-building techniques – open-ended questioning, timeline-building, and fact-checking. "Really, the science is showing that it's about how people tell their stories and how they remember events" that can reveal whether a person is lying, says Meisser. "It's about the cognitive properties of how they tell their stories that tend to be very important." This less adversarial approach is widely used elsewhere in the world, but U.S. police retain their decades-old reliance on the abrasive, unscientific, old-school approach.

Regardless of the technique, however, each confession should be tested for reliability by seeking corroborating evidence. And the very best form of corroboration, says Kassin, is when a suspect provides a detail or fact that police did not already know. "So, if he leads the police to the body, or to the murder weapon, or to whatever was stolen, that is gold-standard, corroborated evidence."
Of a half-dozen recommendations by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, the last one the Texas Legislature has not yet acted on is a requirement to record custodial police interrogations in serious cases. One hopes that this case and other examples of coercive interrogation techniques will spur the Legislature to rectify that oversight when the 84th session convenes in 2015.


rodsmith said...

actualy the reid technique is easy to stop. Just need to apply the proper technique.

when in the interview room and the first cop get's in your face and starts screaming at you.
1. Inform screaming retard that is inpolite and illegal and he/she is to stop Now or face action.
2.reach up and grab neck.
3. pull down hard slamming screaming face into hard steel table.
4. screaming at you stops.
5. screaming for whole new reason begins.

nobody in the world not even cops have the right to get in your face and scream at you and you have every legal right to stop it.

Anonymous said...

Rodsmith, while the bravado of your suggestion probably appeals to the teenage boy in all of us, I doubt assaulting the officer will benefit you. I'm not saying he will pistol whip you or beat the living crap out of you, though that is apparently not completely unheard of, but when you get physical it invites him to do so as well. Guess who typically wins? Choose your battles.

As far as false confessions are concerned, I suspect there is a lot more to the subject than what was posted. Reid technique or not, if a matter came to a jury in the first place, confessions typically tied to plea bargains and all, a defendant who admits to the crime and not just some small culpability for obscure reasons, is going to face an uphill climb even if he totally recants the confession. Sure, some tiny percentage of the population confessions to major crimes they could not have committed, but the body of work on the subject by mainstream shrinks do not support it being anywhere close to 25% of all confessions. Do you really think that an investigator, upon obtaining a valid confession without coercion, should have to reinvent the wheel by completely discounting the confession and independently investigate a complex case as though the confessor were 100% innocent? Good luck with that assertion barring substantial reason for doing so.

rodsmith said...

well 8:14 that depends on the person. If your fixing to destroy my live over something I haven't done. Just give me a 2 sec shot and guess what! even in a police interview your dead!

if I am going it going to be for a real crime and I will take the one who started it with me!

yes actually I do expect them to investigate using REAL evidence not their preconceived bias. As for a confession you got after browbeating and lieing to someone over a 40-50 hour stretch. Sorry you don't deserve a pat on the back. More like a baseball bat to the head.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Grits, thanks for the topic. While it's a normal reaction to address R.S's. reaction he'd resort to, I'll remind everyone that the posting is about false confessions.(if you had been f'ed over by the cops you'd understand where he and the wronged community are coming from)

The excerpt of the Austin Chronicle piece by Jordan Smith is devoid of Plea Bargains being associated with false confessions (unless I missed it, and it's in the link).

Re: the Tim Cole Act and the requirement being ignored. Surely there are some GFB subscribers out there that are savy enough to create some Petitions aimed at getting the Lege to get it done. Before it gets too hot we could march on over to Austin in mass, if need be. Have pitch fork will travel. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Rodsmith, you would do well to read what was written instead of your emotionally based guesses. I clearly stated "without coercion" and as far as "real" evidence, a confession is about as real as it gets. They still investigate what was confessed to in order to corroborate details and the like but starting from scratch on the mere scintilla of a possibility that the one confessing is lying is crazy without real good reason.

But go ahead and play keyboard warrior all you like. Big talk about assaulting detectives or "taking people out" because you feel oppressed at answering a few questions will not get you very far under the best of circumstances.

I'm pretty sure you won't have a "2 second shot" in an interrogation room but on the off chance you get in that situation, by all means wave your weapon around while they take control of the situation since it will likely save us taxpayers a great deal of money. It's one thing to discuss improving how things are done and best possible practices but quite another to waste time on a troll. Bye!