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Why Do People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit?,
And What Can Be Done to Stop It?

By Elaine Cassel

In December 2002, a New York judge granted an unusual request of the chief Manhattan prosecutor: He dismissed all charges against five men the prosecutor had earlier prosecuted. As teenagers, the men had been convicted and incarcerated for raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, and they had since served years of jail time for the crimes. Now, however, the actual perpetrator, an older man named Matias Reyes, has been linked to the victim with DNA evidence – after confessing to the rape and assault earlier in the year. The boys were convicted based on their false confessions. Psychologists can help us understand why people confess to crimes they did not commit.

It is difficult for most people to understand why someone would take the blame for some horrendous crime they did not commit and face years, maybe a lifetime, of jail or maybe even execution. Yet false confessions are second only to false eyewitness identification as leading to false convictions of innocent people.

In this case, the social context in which the arrests and trial took place is significant. In April 1989, in New York City, violent crime rates – murders, rapes, and robberies – were out of control, and people were afraid to walk city streets. The Central Park jogger case served as a symbol for brutality—it was a violent rape in which the victim was also badly beaten, leading to a lengthy hospitalization.

Five teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 16 years, who had been implicated in a separate series of muggings, were questioned about the rape. The boys were black; the victim was white. Some say that things began to go wrong right there—that the race factor trumped a search for the truth. The idea of a roving gang of black boys brutally beating and raping a white woman fit the schema of the public fear of African-Americans and of teenage gangs.

All of the boys made statements to the police, though not one of them admitted to actually having intercourse with the victim. The search for the perpetrator stopped.

Meanwhile, the real perpetrator, Reyes—who had committed a rape a few days before the jogger’s, and would go on to rape and kill—remained out there. Even at the time, it was clear that his modus operandi matched the assault and rape of the jogger, but prosecutors did not follow leads relating to Reyes.

A defendant’s confession is considered the most damning of evidence in a criminal trial. Indeed, it makes the rest of the trial almost irrelevant. So investigators do everything they can to insure that they get one. The problem is that they don’t always get the truth when they get a confession. There are many reasons for this.

Law Enforcement Tactics that Can Lead to False Confessions

First, though physical force and beatings are frowned upon in extracting confessions, investigators today are more likely to use psychological techniques to get people to confess. These include:

  • lengthy interrogations (in this case 14 to 30 hours)
  • denying subjects food, water, and bathroom breaks
  • putting suspects in a small room under bright lights
  • offering the suspect several theories of why he might have committed the crime and acting sympathetic to the defendant
  • suggesting that the person will have an easier time if he talks
  • telling a subject that he has failed a lie detector test (even if he did not)
  • telling a subject that others charged have already confessed and/or implicated the subject (even if they have not)
  • telling subjects they will be charged with a more serious offense if they don’t confess

Individual Psychological Factors that Underlie False Confessions

All of these tactics are legal. Research has shown that even the most educated and innocent of suspects fall victim to these tactics. What psychological mechanisms underlie this result? Again, there are many.

Children, young adolescents (the boys in this case were 14 to 16 years old), and people with cognitive deficits are more likely to confess falsely. They may misunderstand the seriousness of talking, they may begin to actually believe they committed the crime, and/or they may want to please their interrogator, thinking that they will be able to go home if they say what the questioner wants to hear. One of the jogger defendants was mentally retarded and also showed signs of psychosis. Psychological research has shown that children and teenagers (and most adults, for that matter) do not understand the meaning of a "waiver" of their right to have an attorney present during questioning (what is known as Miranda warnings).

Even some adults are highly prone to internalizing accusations and actually believing that they did something they did not do. Psychologists suggest several reasons for this. The person may just be highly suggestible or may want to take the blame for something they did not do in order to assuage guilt for some unpunished offense. Some people break down under lengthy and intense questioning because they don’t have the strategies to resist the false accusations.

When several defendants are involved, as here, a phenomenon known as "The Prisoner’s Dilemma" may be at work. That’s when subjects may cooperate with the investigators in order to get a better deal for themselves, leaving their co-suspects to on their own. Indeed, the prosecutor, in his report to the judge in the jogger case, noted that the defendants' statements were contradictory and seemed to indicate that the defendants were expecting to be witnesses on trials of their buddies, not defendants themselves. (Research into the Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that if all defendants act as if they all will look out for their collective interest, they will be better off than if they "snitch.")

How To Stop False Confessions

Law enforcement representatives could take some simple steps to stop false confessions. Among them:

  • Children, teenagers, and people with mental deficiencies should not be questioned outside the presence of a competent guardian or legal representative. In this case, none of the boys’ parents were present when their children made the most damaging statements against their interests.
  • All interrogations ought to be videotaped. In this case, the taping did not begin until after the boys had been questioned for hours. As a result, the film shows only the statements, not the psychological and environmental pressures that preceded them. Jurors could certainly get a false impression of the "confessions," viewing them outside the context of law enforcement tactics.
  • Statements offered as confessions should not be admissible unless they are corroborated by credible and, when possible, physical evidence. Most states do have laws that require corroboration of admissions, but the standard for how good the corroboration must be is quite low.
  • There should be strict, carefully enforced time limits on interrogations. Questioning that goes beyond three or four hours begins to be coercive; questioners intensify their techniques, and subjects become fatigued, confused, even disoriented. In the jogger case, the interrogations – which ranged from 14 to 30 hours – clearly crossed the line from questioning into coercion.
  • Law enforcement lies to suspects should be forbidden. The "confessions" such lies prompt are often highly unreliable.

If investigators and prosecutors want the truth, and not just a confession, they should heed the research and recommendations that will help insure that the system is worthy of the name—criminal "justice." In the case of the Central Park jogger convictions, justice was not served for 13 years, after the boys served prison terms for crimes they did not commit and the real perpetrator went on to rape and kill another victim.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College