Study reveals a potential cause of false confessions in criminal cases

New research suggests that suggestive memory retrieval tactics can cause a high proportion of people to incorrectly believe they have committed crimes.

False confessions are a more common factor in wrongful convictions than many people in Philadelphia realize. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, seven of the 57 people who have been exonerated in Pennsylvania since 1990 gave false confessions. This represents a rate of nearly one in eight wrongful convictions that involved false confessions. Data from the Innocence Project suggests that national rates of wrongful conviction due to false confession might be even higher.

It can be hard to believe that people accused of serious infractions such as felony sex crimes or violent crimes would choose to give false confessions. However, many factors may lead an innocent person to admit to a crime he or she never committed. Some people decide to confess because they think doing so will result in a better outcome than maintaining their innocence. In other cases, false confessions may occur because people become genuinely convinced that they are guilty.

Study generates false memories

Earlier this year, one study shed light on the potential for wrongly accused people to form false memories. According to NPR, researchers recruited 70 college students to take part in three interviews as part of a study about memory. Prior to these interviews, the researchers spoke to each participant's guardians to obtain information about the participant and a particularly memorable experience in his or her life.

During the interviews, the researchers asked the students to recall the real experience and a second incident that never happened. According to The Toronto Star, the researchers were intentionally vague in their descriptions. They mentioned only that this second incident led to contact with authorities or involved assault. They also insisted the incident had truly happened and encouraged the students to try visualizing how it might have occurred.

Disturbingly, by the end of three interviews that lasted less than an hour each, seven out of 10 participants remembered committing crimes. NPR notes that the students didn't merely confess to fictional stories that the researchers invented. Instead, they fabricated their own detailed recollections of a supposed assault or other violent crimes. Many became emotionally distressed when remembering these events, and some believed their memories were real even after the researchers told them otherwise.

Real-life implications

As NPR notes, these findings provide cause for concern because law enforcement authorities may use similar methods to secure confessions. In fact, the following differences between custodial interrogations and the interviews conducted in this study may make false confessions even more likely in real life:

  • Timing. The study's interviews were relatively brief, while interrogations may be prolonged, leaving the accused physically and mentally exhausted.
  • Sharing of evidence or key details. The study's researchers didn't feed the students any details, whereas police may mention critical information about a crime when seeking a confession.
  • Atmosphere. When interrogating suspects, authorities may use aggressive or intimidating tactics, which were not employed during the study.

The recording of custodial interrogations is one measure that may reduce the risk that false confessions extracted with such tactics will be given credence. Unfortunately, as a 2014 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling notes, the state does not presently require the recording of custodial interrogations.

Answering to wrongful charges

Given the potential for false confessions, most people charged with crimes in Pennsylvania may benefit from securing legal representation. An attorney may be able to help a person protect his or her rights and avoid harmful missteps during criminal justice proceedings.