To most of us, false confessions and accusations seem completely unfathomable. The first couple of questions that come to mind are, “Why would anyone admit to a crime that he/she did not commit?” and “Why would anyone knowingly accuse a person of a crime he/she did not commit?” The only person able to answer these questions is the person making the false confession or accusation. Interestingly, many times, the answer to these questions are, “I don’t know why I confessed,” or “I don’t know why I made those accusations.” Interrogation tactics can be intimidating, and occasionally, people find themselves surrendering to the harsh tactics and forceful strategies used by trained police officers and interrogators.
Police officers are specifically trained to “find the bad guys.” When it comes to finding the perpetrator, they can often have a one-track mind and may occasionally suffer from tunnel vision in order to make the circumstances support the evidence. This training and focus is great when they have the actual perpetrator, but when their interrogation is focused on an innocent person, it can wreak havoc on many people’s lives.
The false confession or accusation is the initial action that sets off a chain of reactions that will require action by numerous departments throughout the court system. This point is illustrated in the article “False Confessions May Lead to More Errors in Evidence, Study Shows” at Science Daily.com.
The personality type and habits of the false confessor and false accuser are similar in some instances, if not identical. Whether one is looking at the jurors, the labs, the polygraphs, fingerprints and other expert evidence, the biases become evident once there has been a false confession/accusation.
So how do we stop the staggering dangers of false confessions/accusations? That is the million dollar question, to which most “experts” do not have the answers.
Approximately 20 years ago, I had an “interview” with a police department. I was hooked up to a polygraph machine and was given “general questions” to answer as part of this process. I place quotes around the words “interview” and “general questions” because the detectives deliberately used those words with me before they hooked me up to the machine. Perhaps they used those nice words in order to help me relax and enter the “interview” in a calm state of mind. It worked perfectly; I was relaxed.
After a few nonthreatening questions, such as the typical, name, age, address, birth date, etc., it was time to get down to business. As I was being interrogated, the detectives asked me very vague and leading questions over and over and over again. Some of the questions I was asked include, “How many people have you killed?” “How many animals have you killed?” “Why did you kill the animal?” Why did you hurt that person?” “Why did you kill that person?” Of course I became extremely upset because I had not committed any of the crimes that they questioned me about. By the end of the interrogation, I felt that I was being accused of several heinous crimes that I certainly did not commit. I continually turned my head towards the examiner and said “I didn’t kill anyone or any animal.” Each time I tried to protest, I was sharply ordered to turn away.
It truly was an exhaustive, harrowing experience and one I that will never forget. The detectives deliberately lied to me. While I am sure it was all a test of my demeanor and character, it is my belief that weaker-minded individuals could be persuaded to believe the facts are slightly different than what they remember.
As I exited the interview, I was shaking, crying, defeated and embarrassed. It took me weeks to get over that experience; after all, I had been hoodwinked. I also had a first-hand experience as to why a person would make a false confession. It made complete sense that if a person had done something in the past that generated feelings of guilt, they might be especially likely to offer a false confession if the subject of the interrogation was related to their act of guilt. Since my interrogation was related to a job application, there was not even a question of whether or not I was guilty or innocent. Regardless, I wanted that polygraph examiner to stop throwing horrible questions at me, and I could not get out of that chair fast enough; I was simply applying for a job. I could not imagine how anyone could take hours upon hours of that type of an interrogation process related to a specific crime. Needless to say, I did not get the job, thankfully.
Jeremy Sheets served four years on Death Row due to a false accusation by his “friend,” Adam Barnett. There is an excellently detailed article by Richard A. Leo, PhD, JD, “False Confessions, Causes, Consequences, and Implications,” Adam Barnett exhibits 99% of the characteristics identified under the Vulnerable Suspects section of this article.
The majority of false accusation and false confession cases will go to trial and a decision will be reached. A decision by a jury does not necessarily make the accusation or confession true or factual. Jurors can be tainted by certain beliefs and persuaded by savvy attorneys, which can lead to uninformed decisions on their part.
Many law enforcement officers I have met over the years had a tendency to not believe most of what a person says, regardless whether that person might be telling the truth or not. In their line of work, they have become skeptics, as probably they should be. On the contrary, once these officers hear a person confess to a crime or accuse a specific person of a crime, and some of these same officers will suddenly believe everything that comes out of that person’s mouth. One must pause and wonder whether it is because the officers simply want to close a case and/or feel great because they got a confession. I believe the number of false confessions/accusations may be reduced significantly if these officers would continue with their skepticism even after a confession/accusation has been made.
It is critical that a thorough follow up and follow through is conducted on all, not just some, of the information pouring out of these confessors’/accusers’ mouths. Perhaps the officers might just find the actual facts to either prove or disprove the claims of the confession/accusation.
The blame does not solely lie with the law enforcement officers; they have a tough job and they are very much appreciated. However, it is critical that we increase awareness of the potential for false confessions/accusations. This intent of this article is to offer at least one example of how law enforcement officials can help reduce the number of these false confessions/accusations.
About the Author
Karen S. Beers, BSW, CCDI
Board Certified Criminal Defense Investigators
Certified Death Investigators
Associates in Forensic Investigations, LLC (AFI)
(970) 480-7793 Office (Karen ext.2) and (970) 480-7794 Fax