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Expert witness influence: Interrogation tactics and false confessions

Wednesday, December 7, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

The public does not believe the innocent falsely confess even in the face of coercive interrogation tactics. And research shows us that once we have a false confession–a domino effect can occur that results in increasing numbers of evidence errors and sometimes, wrongful convictions. Once a confession is given, under any circumstance or for any reason, jurors fight like crazy to minimize any contradictory evidence.  They will insist that “There is no way in the world I would ever admit to a serious crime I didn’t commit.  They caught him in a moment of candor, and now he’s trying to wriggle out of it.”  Of course, they are skeptical of claims of innocence, but cling tenaciously to admissions against interest.

Is there a way to stop the cascade of flawed conclusions that start with the false confession? Can you help a jury to question the initial confession and thus the flood of flawed evidence following that confession? It’s undoubtedly an uphill battle but new research on the impact of expert witness testimony gives some insight into possible remedies.

Researchers conducted two separate studies. In the first, they explored whether interrogation techniques were perceived as coercive by jurors awaiting service in the Santa Ana branch of the Superior Court of California, (Orange County). Jurors thought harming the suspect or presenting false evidence was coercive but did not see it as likely to elicit false confession in an innocent suspect.

“Participants may believe that even though harming the suspect and presenting false evidence are highly coercive tactics, they can be resisted to some degree by guilty suspects and to a greater extent by innocent suspects.”

In the second study, researchers explored the impact of educating jurors about the potential risks of various interrogation tactics. Jury-eligible participants from a number of metropolitan Los Angeles, California colleges were given a condensed transcript of an actual legal case (People of the State of California v. Catarino Gonzalez, 2001) involving the murder of a police officer. For the study, the main piece of evidence presented was the confession of the defendant (disputed on grounds of coercion during interrogation). A defense expert witness testified about the impact of coercive interrogation on false confessions. This expert testimony focused only on the research and offered no opinion as to the reliability of the confession in question.

Questionnaires were completed by participants after reviewing Part 1 of the experimental documents (an introductory summary and transcripts of the interrogation and relevant evidence) and again after Part 2 (documents containing expert witness testimony on the research surrounding interrogation tactics and false confessions).

Prior to the expert testimony, 89.7% of the jurors found the defendant guilty. Statistical analyses showed the confession was the primary reason for their decision (prior arrests and gang affiliation were not statistically significant reasons for a guilty verdict). Further, despite most of them believing the interrogation process exerted a great deal of pressure on the defendant, most of them believed the interrogation tactics to be “relatively fair”.

After the expert testimony, 76.5% (p < .01) of the jurors found the defendant guilty. Yes– even though a unanimous verdict is required in California, this only improves the Defense case, it doesn’t solve the problem.  Further, jurors were more certain (p < .001) of the accuracy of their decision, even though they found five of the eight interrogation tactics to be more coercive (p < .001).

Tactics found to be more coercive after expert witness testimony were: informing suspect of failed polygraph, repeatedly accusing suspect, offering an ultimatum to confess before polygraph, asking suspect to take polygraph, and magnifying the seriousness of the crime.

Finally, researchers looked at 9 aspects of the expert witness testimony to see which were persuasive in juror decisions. They all were.

“Encouragingly, the expert witness testimony seemed to have helped reduce this bias in our study. After the expert testimony, guilty verdicts were reduced and interrogation tactics were perceived as more coercive. As compared to those who did not change their verdicts, those who did, found specific aspects of the expert testimony to be influential in their decisions. This is an important finding because the testimony in this study was framed around the issue of situational factors that may unduly influence suspects’ decisions to confess. As such, the influence of the expert witness was not simply in the form of raising skepticism in the reliability of the confession, but rather it seems to have been in the form of an informational value. Together these results suggest that the expert testimony may help reduce attribution errors by highlighting the influences situational factors can have on behavior. This can lead to a more careful evaluation of confession evidence by jurors.”

In sum, expert witnesses can help educate jurors on the link between psychologically coercive testimony and false confessions. We would caution that the expert witness in this study is widely recognized as an expert in this area. Be sure your own expert is truly “expert” and take a look at this article (and the transcript of the actual trial) to see how extensively the police interrogation was evaluated and what jurors were taught about coercive interrogation tactics. It’s a terrific article with an important message: Given an opportunity to understand how confessions can be unreliable, jurors listen carefully.

Blandón-Gitlin, I., Sperry, K., & Leo, R. (2011). Jurors believe interrogation tactics are not likely to elicit false confessions: will expert witness testimony inform them otherwise? Psychology, Crime & Law, 17 (3), 239-260 DOI: 10.1080/10683160903113699

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2 Responses to “Expert witness influence: Interrogation tactics and false confessions”

  1. @KKComCon says:

    Expert witness influence: Interrogation tactics and false confessions http://t.co/lVWxaUhl5m by @KeeneTrial

  2. @KKComCon says:

    Expert witness influence: Interrogation tactics and false confessions http://t.co/WDI96QxG by @KeeneTrial

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