Sep 15, 2010

coercion plus contamination equals confession

Ever since the landmark work of Elizabeth Loftus, psychologists have warned of the pernicious effects of implanted false memories. It turns out that a similar process--sometimes unconscious on the part of the perpetrator--can lead to false confessions.
Professor Garrett said he was surprised by the complexity of the confessions he studied. “I expected, and think people intuitively think, that a false confession would look flimsy,” like someone saying simply, “I did it,” he said.

Instead, he said, “almost all of these confessions looked uncannily reliable,” rich in telling detail that almost inevitably had to come from the police. “I had known that in a couple of these cases, contamination could have occurred,” he said, using a term in police circles for introducing facts into the interrogation process. “I didn’t expect to see that almost all of them had been contaminated.”
Suspects, worn down through persistent interrogation interspersed with facts of the crime (the classic Law and Order-esque "gotcha," one imagines) or even taken to the crime scene, became adept at recounting the "details" of the crime.

Of course, there was perhaps a more important factor: none of the convicted innocents had a lawyer present during the interrogation.

And the truly frightening part:
Proving innocence after a confession, however, is rare. Eight of the defendants in Professor Garrett’s study had actually been cleared by DNA evidence before trial, but the courts convicted them anyway.
This is mind-boggling, given the justice system's overwhelming--and vastly overconfident--faith in DNA evidence to convict defendants, even though it's far more fallible than CSI would have you imagine.

How culpable are the police officers who elicit false confessions?
Jim Trainum, a former policeman who now advises police departments on training officers to avoid false confessions, explained that few of them intend to contaminate an interrogation or convict the innocent.

“You become so fixated on ‘This is the right person, this is the guilty person’ that you tend to ignore everything else,” he said. The problem with false confessions, he said, is “the wrong person is still out there, and he’s able to reoffend.”
Well... that's one of the problems. The other, perhaps worse, is that an innocent is convicted of a crime. "Better that ten of the guilty go free...."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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