Douglas Starr in the December 9, 2013, New Yorker, describes how the most commonly used confrontational interrogation technique used in the United States leads to false confessions. The method relies on detectives’ observing non-verbal behavior, looking for (or creating) anxiety, never giving the suspect a chance to voice a denial, minimizing the crime and trying every trick to make it easier for the suspect to admit it, even claiming to have evidence they don’t have, with their right to lie to suspects in many circumstances protected by a 1969 Supreme Court decision. The goal is simply to get a confession.
Psychologists became suspicious about the issue of false confessions several decades ago and began studies on it. And experienced detectives have begun to doubt it, as they’ve seen suspects mold their statements to fit the information the detectives have fed them.
In Britain, police don’t try for confessions, they go for information. They focus on the content of what is said, not nonverbal behavior or anxiety (proved to be not correlated with lying). Instead, they look for inconsistencies: “For the suspect, lying creates a cognitive load—it takes energy to juggle the details of a fake story.” It’s hard to keep it up. Nor are the police allowed to lie about what evidence they have.
In the United States, out of 311 people exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, more than a quarter had given false confessions—perhaps most notoriously, the Central Park Five. (Ken and Sarah Burns film on the case). Why do they confess? Worn down by the interrogation, an innocent suspect “fabricates a story to satisfy his questioners.” This is most likely what led to the false statement made by Amanda Knox, which, although she recanted, has been used against her ever since.
This post originally appeared February 3, 2014.