The Truth About False Confessions

The recent documentary “Making a Murderer” has shined a spotlight on the growing phenomenon of false confessions in the United States. Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit? There is no simple answer, as each case is varied and complex. Let's take a look at the possible reasons and three case studies.

Most often, a combination of several factors leads to a false confession. One major factor is the manner in which the police interrogation is carried out and the technique used. For example, when using the Reid Technique, interrogators first assess a suspect's body language to determine if they are lying. If they seem like they are lying, the interrogators push them to confess. They then downplay the seriousness of the crime and pretend to have evidence that doesn't exist. Other factors that can come into play are the following: stress, intoxication, mental illness, coercion, fear of violence and actual violence from police, the threat of a harsh sentence, and exhaustion (many interrogations are held between midnight and 8:00 a.m. and the process can last for hours).

Mental disability and age are also significant factors. People with mental disabilities are more likely to attempt to placate and accommodate authority figures, while someone with a mental illness or drugs may be too impaired to think logically. Young people are more prone to admit guilt to a crime they did not commit. In a Wall Street Journal report (using statistics from the National Registry of Exonerations) on September 8, 2013, it was found that “thirty-eight percent of exonerations for crimes allegedly committed by youth under 18 in the last quarter century involved false confessions compared with 11% for adults, according to a new database of 1,155 individuals who were wrongly convicted and later cleared of all charges.” It is thought that they are prone to make false confessions because the areas of the brain responsible for executive function are underdeveloped, thus making them more trustworthy of authority figures and easy to manipulate.

Regardless of age and mental capacity, when a suspect makes a false confession they believe that saying they committed the crime will be more favorable than continuing to claim their innocence. Whatever they are experiencing during the interrogation must be so severe that they are pushed into making a false claim. For example, if a mentally capable adult is interrogated for hours on no sleep with the belief that they will be released after confessing and have the chance to prove their innocence later, they will most likely confess. Another example is if an innocent person is told that there is evidence against them; if they confess they’ll get a three year sentence, or don’t confess and face 25 years. If you were in this situation, which option would you choose?

Case 1 - Damon Thibodeaux

On the evening of July 19, 1996, 22-year-old Damon Thibodeaux joined a search party in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana to search for his 14-year-old cousin, Crystal Champaigne.  She had gone to the store that afternoon and hadn’t come back. The search lasted all night and into the following afternoon, at which point police began to interview people who had been with Crystal before her disappearance. They interviewed Thibodeaux, and thought he was a potential suspect since he had been one of the last people to see her at her family’s house. He was asked to take a polygraph test, which he agreed to.

After the polygraph test, Thibodeaux was interrogated for nine hours, despite not having eaten or slept much in the last 30 hours. He was told he failed the test, that there was evidence against him, and that if he did not confess he would receive the death penalty. Thibodeaux, who was overwhelmed with the circumstances he was in, confessed. He was arrested and charged with rape and murder, despite the numerous inconsistencies between his statement and the facts of the crime. After he was allowed to eat and rest, he immediately recanted his story. It was too late; he was sentenced to death. Thankfully, after spending 16 years in prison and 15 years on death row, Thibodeaux was exonerated by DNA testing. It was said that his false confession stemmed from a combination of exhaustion, the length of the interrogation, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty.

Case 2 - West Memphis Three

On May 6, 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, the naked bodies of three murdered children were found. Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols (ages 16, 17, and 18) were convicted of the murders, based on Misskelley's confession a month after the actual murders. Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, was interrogated for five hours. During the interrogation, the police told him details of the crime in an effort to obtain a confession, which was full of inconsistencies. Despite the lack of DNA or physical evidence connecting the three to the crime and Jessie’s quickly recanted confession, the three were found guilty. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin received life without parole, and Misskelley received one life sentence and two 20-year sentences. They spent 17 years professing their innocence until 2011, when a deal was reached with prosecutors. The three teens were to be released if they entered an Alford plea, officially pleading guilty to the crime while maintaining their innocence. They agreed, were released, and continue to profess their innocence.

Case 3 - Brendan Dassey

On May 13, 2006, in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey confessed to helping his uncle Stephen Avery rape, kill and dismember a woman named Teresa Halbach. Despite no credible evidence, Dassey was found guilty of second-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to life in prison. During the video-recorded interrogation, Dassey (who has an IQ of 70) was provided a majority of the details of the murder and was questioned until he told police what he thought they wanted to hear. He did not have a lawyer present and most likely he did not know that he could request one. In the interrogation video, Dassey appeared stressed, confused, and just wanted to go home. The police lead him to believe that signing a confession would allow him to go home; so he did and later recanted. There is widespread disagreement over whether or not Dassey assisted his uncle in murdering Teresa. Perhaps we will never know, but there is no disagreement that the techniques used in his interrogation were questionable.