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False Confessions: “No one really does that unless they’re just stupid”

Friday, November 30, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

“The idea that you would confess to a murder you didn’t commit is just….just absurd!”

Mock jurors don’t like to hear about false confessions or coerced confessions. They often do not want to believe the repeated errors and, in some cases, the lies told by police or prosecutors to obtain a conviction. They know they, personally, would “never” confess to a crime they did not commit. Not even a robbery. But never a violent crime– especially not a murder! Anyone who would do that might just deserve what they get.

Doing stupid things can be very costly, and you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.

That’s what we hear from our mock jurors anyway. And it’s supported by the research on false confessions. It’s part of why once you make a false confession, you are much more likely to be convicted of the crime. You confessed. You can’t un-ring the bell– not even in the minds of judges and investigating professionals. You must be guilty. Gotcha. And the evidence is viewed through that confession. No one is looking for reasons your confession might be false. They are simply looking for evidence to support the confession.

Just like we review litigation-relevant research for this blog, we often review the social sciences research more thoroughly for ongoing cases in which we are completing pretrial research. We know some trial consultants who say things like “I don’t write papers because I’m too busy working”. And we think that’s a shame.

For us, it is (to paraphrase Stephen Covey) all about ‘sharpening our sword’. We study anything we work on– on our own time– if we feel it will make us more effective for our clients. Since we first wrote about the research on jurors and racism more than ten years ago, it’s been clear to us that we begin projects with much more clarity and direction when we’ve reviewed the social science research relevant to the case or area of study.

And we made a decision to share that work with you. Our website contains articles we’ve written over the years on a broad variety of topics. In the past five years, we’ve been publishing our work [once the specific cases are concluded] in The Jury Expert so it goes to an even broader audience.

Here’s a page with links to multiple topics on which we’ve published in The Jury Expert. That list does not include the two most recent papers–but you can see our article on hydraulic fracking here.

Our most recent article is published in the November/December issue of The Jury Expert and is on the mystery of False Confessions. Because of the unique nature of the research and the importance of the content, we asked four professionals to offer their thoughts on the work. We are honored to have responses on the article from Saul KassinWalter Katz, Karen Franklin and Larry Barksdale. They are respectively, perhaps the best known expert on false confessions; a former criminal defense attorney turned police oversight attorney for the Office of Independent Review in the Los Angeles area; a forensic psychologist/expert witness; and a police detective with more than 4 decades of law enforcement work.

We hope you will read this article on false confessions and invite you to comment at The Jury Expert website. As in many of our past experiences, taking the time to review the research and write the article crystallized our thoughts, informed our practice, and made our feedback to client attorneys more useful, practical and relevant. We’re never “too busy working” to give specific cases in-depth attention. Make the time, get it right.

Here’s a link to the article now available in The Jury Expert: Only the Guilty Would Confess to Crimes” Understanding the mystery of false confessions.

***We appreciate being included in the ABA Blawg 100 for the third year in a row! If you like our blawg, take a minute to vote for us here (under the Trial Practice category). Thanks! Doug and Rita***

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