Disclaimer: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.
“All of us could falsely confess to something. It might take you a week; it might take me an hour. But we’re all going to have our breaking point.”
This is an excerpt from The Confession Tapes—a Netflix documentary that looks at true stories of false murder confessions.
The idea that someone would admit to a crime he or she didn’t commit may seem unbelievable, until you take a closer look at the psychological effects of interrogations.
1. Innocence Can Look Worse Than Guilt
Those who are innocent have an impulse to willingly talk to police because they feel they “have nothing to hide.” In one story the documentary covers, a woman suspected of killing her daughter in a house fire readily takes a polygraph test because “there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever. I had nothing to hide.”
But as The Confession Tapes highlights, this can backfire on innocent suspects.
In a 2004 mock-crime study, participants (who were either guilty or innocent of a pretend crime) were confronted by a detective who sought a waiver of their Miranda rights. Results showed that participants who were truly innocent were significantly more likely to sign a waiver than those who were guilty, believing the power of their innocence would set them free.
But when you have an interrogator who believes a person is guilty, he or she will put on more pressure and cause the suspect to react defensively. This can make the innocent look guilty.
2. A Lie Detector Isn’t Foolproof
A polygraph test is not considered by scientists to be a foolproof way of detecting deception.
However, it plays a major role in false confessions because interrogators often will accept the machine’s results as truth, as The Confession Tapes highlighted.
When the woman suspected of murdering her daughter took a polygraph test and “failed,” the interviewer understands this as guilt; “The machine really doesn’t lie,” he said.
Under the intense pressure tactics that follow, the suspect begins to believe the results of the test. When she finally “confesses” to the crime, she says, “I apparently did it,” and when the interviewer asks why, she says, “The test.”
3. Suggestions Can Create False Memories
When an interrogator persistently suggests to a suspect that, “You were there” and “I know you were there. I just want you to think,” he or she is messing with the memory of the suspect—and it works.
Research shows that these suggestive interview techniques can create vivid and complex – false – memories in someone.
In another story, the documentary highlights a man accused of first-degree murder and arson, who eventually breaks down from these interview tactics and confesses, saying “I was questioning myself” and “They told me that I’d blacked out.”
The Confession Tapes not only reveals some of the failings of the justice system but also raises a flag of caution should you ever find yourself the subject of interrogation. Keep it in mind that “all of us could falsely confess to something.”