Dr. Saul Kassin: Explaining False Confessions and Their Effects
Posted on November 12th, 2012

At the 2012 TLR Symposium held on November 9, 2012, Dr. Saul Kassin delivered the Keynote Speech on his research of false confessions. Dr. Kassin is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who pioneered the scientific study of false confessions by developing a taxonomy that distinguishes types of false confessions and laboratory paradigms that are now used to assess why innocent people are targeted for interrogation, why they confess, and the impact of this evidence on witnesses, judges, juries, and others. He is the author of Confessions in the Courtroom, The Psychology of Evidence and Trial Procedure, and The American Jury on Trial: Psychological Perspectives.

The Prevalence of False Confessions

Dr. Kassin began by describing the tremendous evidentiary power that confessions have. He recounted several cases in which the respective suspects confessed to committing rape, though DNA testing subsequently eliminated them as viable suspects. Presumably, such exculpatory evidence would lead prosecutors to drop the charges, but Dr. Kassin noted that the prosecutors nonetheless pursued some of these cases on the notion that the confessions were still indicative of guilt. In one case, for example, a father confessed to raping and murdering his young child. Even though DNA evidence implicated another person, the state nonetheless charged him under the theory that he let the true perpetrator into his house in order to commit the crime.

Dr. Kassin touched on how often false confessions occur. Based on his research, he noted that 37 percent of those exonerated by DNA evidence over the past five years involved a false confession. Dr. Kassin also stressed that, while false confessions are most visible in cases that involve DNA exonerees, they occur in military and corporate settings. For example, an employee of Autozone confessed to stealing $800 from the company. After the employee paid restitution and was ultimately fired, the company discovered that a clerical error was responsible for the missing funds.

Why Innocent People Confess

Dr. Kassin moved on to explain the reasons why innocent people make confessions. He identified three separate situations where this seemingly counterintuitive action occurs. First, innocent confessors are often “vulnerable,” that is, unable to understand the consequences of giving a confession. These include adolescents, mentally ill persons, those who are compliant or suggestible, and those who are in a state of grief or shock. Second, situational factors, such as the length and manner of the interrogation, can cause innocent people to confess. Third, Dr. Kassin observed that the “phenomenology of the innocent,” or one’s belief in his own innocence, leads to false confessions. As a result, those who believe they are innocent are more likely to waive their Miranda rights, respond to police questioning, supply alibis, and take polygraph tests.

The Influence of Confessions on Guilty Verdicts

Next, Dr. Kassin discussed how, in many cases, confessions trump innocence. As an example, he cited a clinical study where mock juries considered varying types of confessions. This study found that the juries were as likely to convict a person who had confessed, regardless of the extent to which the confession was coerced or the reliability of the person to whom the confession was made (e.g., one made to a jail-house snitch as opposed to a police detective).

He then offered three theories on why confessions have such a powerful influence on the determination of guilt. First, it is commonsense that a person would not confess to crime unless he was actually guilty. Not only does this theory have logical appeal, it is also bolstered by two principles of psychology—that people have an inclination to believe what they hear and particularly when the statements are against one’s self-interest. Dr. Kassin also found that people tend to consider these statements in a vacuum, without considering the pressure or coercion that the confessor experienced at the time of the statement.

Second, false confessions gain evidentiary strength when the confessor corroborates his inculpatory statement with facts that are consistent with the crime. Sometimes, however, these facts are suggested, or even supplied, by the interrogator—a practice sometimes termed “contamination.” Third, Dr. Kassin found that false confessions have the tendency to make external evidence more reliable.

Suggested Policy Reforms

Dr. Kassin concluded his remarks with suggested policy reforms. These included video recording police interrogations, altering police interrogation practices, subjecting confessions to pretrial reliability hearings, and amending exoneree-compensation statutes.

Francis Weber
Temple University School of Law, J.D. Candidate 2014