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Why do suspects admit to crimes they didn’t commit?

On Behalf of | Apr 26, 2022 | Criminal Defense

It is stressful to get detained or arrested by law enforcement. Regardless of whether the suspect is innocent or guilty, officers do their best to coerce information or an admission of guilt. Typically, younger suspects are most likely to confess, but suspects can be male or female, a person of color or white, old or young.

These details are discussed in a new book entitled “Duped: Why Innocent People Confess and Why We Believe Their Confessions.” Written by a John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City professor named Saul Kassin, it features hundreds of interviews of suspects who gave false confessions, including an 18-year-old who claimed to have killed his mother.

A trained social psychologist, Kassin argues that law enforcement coerces suspects into manufacturing a false narrative, which they then internalize as truth. It’s a short step from there to admitting guilt. Ideally, an investigation gets to the heart of the matter, or the actual facts eventually arise that exonerate the convicted criminal, but this may be years or even decades after a conviction.

It’s much more likely that investigators and courts take the defendant at their word and convict them. In the the eyes of the police, who would falsely admit to a crime unless they were tortured or aggressively badgered? They tend to dismiss the power of simple coercion.

The Reid Method

Developed in Chicago, the Reid Method is the gold standard technique investigators use for getting confessions. It starts with the officer having a general conversation with the suspect, referred to as a Behavioral Analysis Interview. If an investigator trained to identify traits of liars believes the suspect isn’t telling the truth, they launch into a coercive attack using trickery, false accusations, and deceit.

The issue here is that the officer presumes the suspect to be guilty and then works towards proving that sometimes-incorrect hypothesis. Traumatized by the arrest and events that led up to it, the victim-suspect is vulnerable to coercion on behalf of the police.

The convicted can fight back

Rather than wait for forensics to clear them, innocent victims can recant their confession and seek exoneration. Still, it’s a difficult battle – courts and law enforcement most often do not want to revisit a case or admit they got it wrong. Nonetheless, a good legal team can help guide an innocent person through the process. An attorney may even initially recognize that the false confession was coerced and seek to have it deemed inadmissible as evidence.