Imagine you are a juror in a criminal case. In response to the defendant’s claim of innocence the District Attorney points to the defendant’s “confession” as concrete proof of his guilt. Urging you to use your common sense, the District Attorney shouts, “innocent people don’t confess!” Persuasive, right?
Sorry, Mr. Prosecutor, you’re wrong.
False Confessions are Common
In fact, there have been 317 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States and approximately 30% of those cases involved false confessions, statements, or admissions. Another study, published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that out of 340 wrongfully convicted people 42% of the juveniles had falsely confessed, compared with only 13% of adults.
How does this happen? In addition to long periods of relentless questioning, officers are allowed to lie about evidence pointing to your guilt. Equally manipulative, some suspects are told that they will be convicted with or without their statement but the judge may reduce their sentence if they come clean and confesses.
Juveniles and Minors are at Greater Risk of Making a False Confession
Due to an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for problem solving and decision-making, juveniles and people with mental disabilities are even more susceptible to false confessions. Motivated by fear and stress, adolescents are prone to impulsive behavior. Whether we like to admit it, we’re all guilty of making stupid, spur-the-moment decisions in our younger years. If you’re still feeling ashamed you may be relieved to know that young minds prioritize immediate rewards/pleasure over long-term consequences.
Parents can also inadvertently pressure their child into making false statements because kids are socialized to obey the law and tell the truth. Preying on a child’s fear and obedience, some officers will tell juveniles that they will be able to go home and everything will be okay if they just admit what happened. Focused only on the immediate reward of going home, a juvenile may not even consider how his statement will be used against him later on.
Police Interviews Won’t Help
So you are told by the police that everything will be fixed if only you come in to talk. Sure, that sort of thing works on television where fantasy people walk into fantasy police precincts and talk their way out of being arrested. Not in real life. Despite promises to the contrary, the police are not always there to help you and the truth won’t always set you free. If the police want to talk to you, they aren’t doing it to help. Heck, if the police wanted to help you couldn’t they just leave you alone? No, the reason they want to talk to you is to get information which could be used against you.
You get brought into a stressful meeting with a police officer and put into a small enclosed room. Then you are grilled for what seems like forever. Under this incredibly pressure, even the best of us would feel pressure to do anything to get out of there. As explained by a wrongfully convicted 17 year old, “It’s like having an 18-wheeler driving on your chest and you believe that the only way to get that weight off your chest is to tell the police whatever they want to hear . . . even admitting to a murder.”