Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Innocent People Confess and Plead Guilty

Two recent articles focus on an astonishing statistic. There is a legal charity called Innocence Project that has used DNA evidence to secure the freedom of 289 people who were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Even though these people had not committed the crimes for which they were charged, about 24% of them had falsely confessed to the crimes. How could this be? And if true, how many innocent people are in prison today because they confessed to crimes they did not commit?

An article provided by The Economist sheds some light on this phenomenon by referring to several laboratory studies that indicate the astonishing ease with which people can be induced to admit to actions that never occurred. Consider this illuminating finding:

"One of the most recent papers on the subject, published in Law and Human Behavior by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, used a group of 71 university students who were told they were taking part in a test of their reaction times. Participants were asked to press keys on a keyboard as they were read aloud by another person, who was secretly in cahoots with the experimenter. The volunteers were informed that the ALT key was faulty, and that if it was pressed the computer would crash and all the experimental data would be lost. The experimenter watched the proceedings from across the table."

"In fact, the computer was set up to crash regardless, about a minute into the test. When this happened the experimenter asked each participant if he had pressed the illicit key, acted as if he was upset when it was "discovered" that the data had disappeared, and requested that the participant sign a confession. Only one person actually did hit the ALT key by mistake, but a quarter of the innocent participants were so disarmed by the shock of the accusation that they confessed to something they had not done."

The experimenters took this process a step further. One of the procedures allowed police in the US, but banned in the UK, is the claim of false evidence. This is a remarkably effective way to confuse and intimidate an innocent person.

"A second computer-crash test conducted by Dr Kassin and Dr Perillo used this technique. Another person in the room beside the experimenter said he saw the participant hitting the ALT key. In this case the confession rate jumped to 80% of innocent participants."

The facility with which the experimenters could manipulate people into making these admissions is startling. This is a low-stakes environment. How does this behavior translate into the tense, threatening, high-stakes environment provided by a police interrogation? An article by David K. Shipler in the New York Times addresses this issue: Why Do Innocent People Confess?

"If you have never been tortured, or locked up and verbally threatened, you may find it hard to believe that anyone would confess to something he had not done. Intuition holds that the innocent do not make false confessions. What on earth could be the motive? To stop the abuse? To curry favor with the interrogator? To follow some fragile thread of imaginary hope that cooperation will bring freedom?"

"Yes, all of the above."

A rather different population appears in police interrogation rooms than the one encountered in university studies such as those discussed above.

"Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and suspects who are drunk or high. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they go along with interrogators. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated."

Shipler describes some of the tricks police are taught in order to facilitate this manipulation.

"Officers are taught to use all the tricks and lies that courts permit within the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s shield against self-incrimination. John E. Reid & Associates, which has trained thousands of interrogators, suggests that a suspect be induced to waive his constitutional rights to silence and counsel by giving him the famous Miranda warning "casually" and not immediately after arrest, when he is "defensive and guarded" and "more likely to invoke his rights." When a skilled questioner splices it nonchalantly into conversation, the warning’s empowering message of choice can be lost on a suspect. Many false confessors have been routinely Mirandized in this perfunctory manner."

Remember the technique of threatening with false evidence that led to the 80% false confession rate among college students? That is standard procedure for US police.

"Interrogators are advised to pretend to have evidence but not to fabricate it."

Shipler uses an example to demonstrate how powerful this approach can be.

"A cunning lie generated a false confession from Martin Tankleff, 17, who found his parents one morning in their Long Island home slashed and stabbed, his mother dead, his father barely alive. The boy called 911 and was taken for questioning. Getting nowhere, Detective K. James McCready decided on a trick. He walked to an adjacent room within hearing distance, dialed an extension on the next desk, picked up the phone and faked a conversation with an imaginary officer at the hospital. He went back to the son and told him that his father had come out of his coma and said, "Marty, you did it." In fact, Seymour Tankleff never regained consciousness and died a month later."

"In experiments and in interrogation rooms, adults who are told convincing fictions have become susceptible to memories of things that never happened. Rejecting their own recollections through what psychologists call "memory distrust syndrome," they are tricked by phony evidence into accepting their own fabrications of guilt — an ‘internalized false confession’."

"That is what happened to a shaken Martin Tankleff, and although he quickly recanted, as if coming out of a spell, he was convicted and drew 50 years to life. He spent 17 years in prison before winning an appeal based on new evidence that pointed to three ex-convicts."

There is another aspect of legal procedure that can be used to induce confessions. It seems to work fine on both the guilty and the innocent. It involves the brute force approach of threatening excessive punishments. The harsh and mandatory sentences that have been written into law are quite efficient at convincing people to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to avoid a longer prison term. Michelle Alexander provides us with another perspective in her book The New Jim Crow.

"The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has noted that ‘the value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies not in its imposition, but in its value as a bargaining chip to be given away in return for the resource-saving plea from the defendant to a more leniently sanctioned charge.’ Describing severe mandatory sentences as a bargaining chip is a major understatement, given its potential for extracting guilty pleas from people who are innocent of any crime."

"Never before in our history....have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe. When officers offer ‘only’ three years in prison when the penalties defendants could receive if they took their case to trial would be five, ten, or twenty years—or life imprisonment—only extremely courageous (or foolish) defendants turn the offer down."

Alexander’s comments were made in the context of the War on Drugs and its efficient mechanisms for whisking people off the streets and shipping them to prison.

We have fallen into a system whereby about nineteen out of every twenty felony convictions are obtained by plea bargain. The fact that so many people are sent to prison without ever having to formally prove their guilt should be disturbing enough, but the findings discussed here indicate that a large number of these people are likely to be innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated.

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