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Why I Believe in the Reality of False Confessions - Part 1

“You’ve got to be kidding me! Why would anyone confess to something they didn’t do? I can’t believe that.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it one hundred times. When I first got involved with wrongful convictions, I had no problem believing false confessions occur. For me, they were commonplace. That’s right. Commonplace. So common that it took me a while to understand why other people have such a difficult time accepting that it really happens and it can destroy someone's life. Let me explain.

My Experience as a child
I always thought my two sisters and I were fairly “normal” growing up. Later, I found that in order to dispel such a myth, all I had to do was to get married. A spouse, coming from an entirely different family system, will be very quick to point out your idiosyncrasies and the weird ways of your family! So, it’s important to understand how different “normal” may be from family to family.

When I look back to my youth, my sisters and I were decent students, we got involved in extracurricular activities and didn’t get into much trouble within the family or at school or with the law. Not that all was perfect. We had sibling fights. Sometimes my parents would get sick of it. Usually we would claim that the other was “exaggerating!” And today my sisters claim I did certain things which I will deny until the day that I die. (I confess my memory is not as good as theirs, which can be quite convenient.) But in the midst of all of that, I never remember any of us getting the other in trouble by making up something that wasn’t true. The thought never occurred to us. When we got into trouble for something we actually did, the thought of lying about it never entered our minds! If we got caught, the only option was to face the consequences, as uncomfortable as they might be, and move on. Rarely, did we have repeat offenses. After all, our parents were consistent and we weren’t stupid! We did things behind our parent’s back like everyone else. But once called on the carpet, it was over. I don’t ever remember, nor do my sisters, being grilled until our parents pried the truth out. We never considered lying to our folks. My memory may be a bit filtered, but you get the idea. Had I learned of false confessions before I got married, I probably would have just shook my head and walked on. It just would not have made sense!

My experience as a parent
Things were quite different when I got married and began having my own children. My first wife was the “hard nose” and I was the “soft touch.” Her frequency in finding fault with the kids was much greater than mine, and more significantly, when she believed one of them was lying to her, she never stopped until she felt satisfied that the child had come clean. That was a reality they learned well. At first, I was very impressed. falseconfessions3My wife was able to get the kids to confess what they did or how they lied. I wasn’t nearly so good at getting results and her ability was—to put it one way—outstanding! But as time went on, I became suspicious and wondered if I was seeing a pattern. I began to question whether my wife was producing the truth or if the interrogations had ended because the child said what she wanted to hear.

Years later, my children shared with me that there were many times when it was clear that the only way to make the interrogation/punishment stop was to tell their mom what she believed to be the truth. Telling the real truth became less and less the main concern. Mind you, my wife didn’t think she was manipulating the kids. She just wanted to get to the bottom of it, find out what really happened . . . and she knew how to do it! . . . or at least thought she did. She didn’t understand how what she inflicted on the children was severe enough or lasted long enough that telling the truth became secondary. She would say “Tell the truth,” and the kids understood that is what she wanted. But when they would tell the truth and get into more trouble because of it, there was only one way to end their predicament—to tell her what she wanted to hear - an unintended consequence of her approach.

So, if your family experience was more like mine growing up, it's perfectly understandable why it may be confusing to hear of people who are talked into saying they did something which they never did. You are fortunate that you have never been in a postion where the consequences of telling the truth were worse than the consequences of telling a lie. I hope my explanation has helped. But why, you may still think, would someone lie when the consequences are going to prison?

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Dealing with the police
When it comes to false confessions, there is one additional twist the police throw in. It is an acceptable and encouraged practice for police to lie to a person they are interrogating. A lie might be wrong when used for self-interest, but what if they are trying to trick a guilty person into telling the truth? We applaud it when we see it on TV shows. They got the bad guy; got him caught up in his web of lies. It’s considered to be an intelligent way of getting a deceptive person to tell the police what in their gut they already know: the suspect is guilty! This tactic is commonplace in interrogations, because police believe they have the perpetrator and coerce or trick the suspect into telling them exactly what they want to hear. One of the worst lies police tell a suspect who is actually innocent is that “if you just sign this paper, you can go home.” It’s not difficult to understand that youth and mentally challenged people are 9 times more likely to make a false confession; they are 9 times more likely to fall prey to the police tactics, even though they are innocent.

But let’s not think that intelligent, educated adults don’t also succumb to the temptation of making a false confession. In my next blog, I will share the other reason I believe in the reality of false confessions, something which takes it out personal experience and into the realm of social science. And the people involved in that story have post graduate degrees!

For some excellent examples of false confessions by 60 Minutes and Frontline, click here.

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