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What I should have said was nothing: The disaster of a false confession

Monday, January 11, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks blog (one of our favorites) discusses an article in the APS Observer on the psychology and power of false confessions. The article itself is a good read that points out the many reasons for false confessions.  It then shifts to a discussion of how lay persons and experts modify their own opinions after learning about confessions. In brief (and you really do want to read the full article) they found that lay people (read ‘jurors’) and experts (read ‘expert witnesses’, ‘forensic experts’) change their evaluation of the non-confession evidence (the other evidence presented) and see it as stronger evidence against the accused.

Situationist Blog also comments on this research quoting the primary author saying ““the most common reaction I get from a lay audience is, ‘Well, I would never do that. I would never confess to something I didn’t do.’ And people apply that logic in the jury room. It’s just that basic belief that false confessions don’t occur.”

This is potentially deadly. We ‘see’ evidence differently if we know someone has confessed. The Innocence Project has hard data on the relationship of false confession to wrongful conviction. But what do you say to jurors?

  • If you can’t keep the confession out via a motion in limine, you have an uphill climb.
  • You can show them evidence of false confessions and how they are coerced.
  • You can teach them about the powerfully biasing effects of a false confession.
  • And you can tell them about the Innocence Project’s numbers on how often we wrongfully convict based on false convictions. Ask them to look at the evidence. If they didn’t have that confession, would they convict?
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