What factors can cause innocent people to give false confessions?

False confessions may occur for many reasons, including sleep deprivation, misunderstandings on the part of the accused and forceful interrogation tactics.

False confessions constitute a more prevalent cause of wrongful convictions than many people in Manassas may realize. The true number of these confessions that occur each year is unknown. However, per the Innocence Project, more than one out of four people who have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated either gave false confessions or took other actions to incriminate themselves.

Here in Virginia, eight out of 46 exonerations have involved false confessions to date, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. To many people, these high false confession rates may seem incomprehensible. However, many common factors may predispose innocent people to give these confessions.

Mental and physical exhaustion

A study published earlier this year suggests that people who are sleep-deprived may be more likely to give in to wrongful accusations. The Washington Post reports that during the study, researchers warned the participants against pressing a key that would delete all of their experimental data. After keeping half of the participants up all night, the researchers accused each person of hitting the key. The confession rate among the innocent but sleep-deprived participants was about 50 percent, compared to 18 percent for the others.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that people who are exhausted may be at greater risk for providing false confessions, even when doing so can result in serious legal consequences. In one disturbing case, a father who had stayed awake for 24 hours looking for his missing daughter was subsequently kept awake during interrogation for an additional 20 hours. He eventually gave a false confession to the authorities' accusations of sexual assault and murder of his own child.

Aggressive interrogation tactics

Interrogation techniques that are designed to elicit confessions, rather than the truth, may also contribute to many false confessions. In addition to using sleep deprivation to wear down suspects, authorities may lie about the evidence against a person, according to The Toronto Star. Threats of harsh legal sanctions or other punishments may also be employed to incentivize a person to give a confession.

Research published in the journal Psychology Science in 2014 suggests that these tactics may even cause some innocent people to become convinced that they are actually guilty. During the study, researchers used poor memory retrieval techniques while they questioned the participants about a fictional incident that the participants supposedly had experienced as juveniles. The researchers only told the participants that the incident led to police contact or involved an assault. Troublingly, after just a few interviews, the researchers observed the following results:

  • About 70 percent of the participants became convinced that the event had actually occurred.
  • These participants described detailed and emotional memories of the fictional assault or crime.
  • Many participants continued insisting that the incident was real even after the researchers told them otherwise.

Alarmingly, as The Toronto Star notes, the tactics used during this study were much less manipulative than the ones that may be employed during police interrogations.

Legal misunderstandings

Finally, many people may give false confessions when faced with felony or misdemeanor charges because they do not adequately understand the situation or their legal rights. According to the Innocence Project, some people may believe that they will be released after confessing and will be able to gather evidence of their innocence. Others may misunderstand or waive their legal rights to remain silent and consult with an attorney.

To avoid these harmful missteps, anyone who stands accused of a crime should seek the advice of an attorney immediately. An attorney may be able to help a person devise a legal strategy that does not involve a false confession or self-incrimination.