Many crime-based movies have been made about the wrongly accused and imprisoned, but the scenario plays out often in real life as well. One contributing factor continuing to draw interest from the legal profession and law enforcement is coercive police interrogation – and how it can influence a false confession by an innocent suspect.
According to The Innocence Project, which focuses on the exoneration of falsely convicted felons, between 1989 and 2016 false confessions occurred in 31 percent of DNA-exonerated cases, and in 63 percent DNA exonerations involving homicides. Concerns about false confessions reached the point where a long-used interrogation technique was discredited by a large police consulting firm due to the risk of it producing false confessions.
“Juries need to have a comprehensive understanding of interrogation,” says Brian Leslie (https://www.criminalcaseconsultants.com), an author and expert analyst of coercive police interrogation techniques who has been retained in high-profile criminal trials throughout the United States.
“They need to know how an interrogation is broken down and how the interrogator determined the ‘presumption of guilt,’ which is a prerequisite for conducting such an interrogation.”
Leslie says there’s an important distinction between an interview - the purpose of which is fact-finding and gathering evidence - and an interrogation. The purpose of an interrogation is to solicit a confession.
“When a presumption of guilt is based on bias, or inaccurate, unvetted information and not on evidence, that may result in a wrong suspect being targeted,” Leslie says. “Thus, the interrogator is forced to resort to coercive methods, which increases the potential for a false confession.”
Leslie explains three ways suspects can be coerced into giving a false confession:
Minimization. This is when an interrogator minimizes the culpability of the suspect, trying to get the suspect to drop their guard when answering. “An excellent example of this would be if an interviewer tells a suspect that the offense he committed was not a serious one and that the most important thing is to be honest, and ‘man up,’ because ‘everyone makes mistakes,’ “ Leslie says. “The interviewer is appealing to the suspect’s male ego and suggesting that by just admitting to the crime, people would understand and respect his honesty.”
Vulnerability. In this scenario, the interrogator takes advantage of a suspect’s mental defect, personality, age, etc. “Typically, these suspects are alcoholics or drug users, those with mental disabilities, maybe a person who may have deep-seeded religious or political beliefs,” Leslie says. “Certain types are vulnerable to manipulative tactics or coercive questioning by the interviewer. A low IQ may also affect a person’s ability to articulate answers or not fully understand the questions asked. Also vulnerable are teens or persons who speak English as a second language.
Word and narrative integration. “The interviewer changes the word usage of the suspect to support the interviewer’s narrative,” Leslie says. “An example of this would be changing the suspect’s word from ‘hit’ to the word ‘whacked,’ or ‘moved’ to ‘shook.’ That makes the context more dramatic.”
“Coercive questioning by an interviewer does not necessarily mean there was misconduct by the interviewer,” Leslie says. “And although coercive questioning during an interrogation plays a vital role in how false confessions occur, a crucial component to any interrogation is the investigation that preceded it and how it was conducted.”