Foundation of a false confession

Grits For Breakfast (hat tip: Simple Justice) posted on an insightful discussion by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ Criminal Justice Integrity Unit (hey, we need one of those in West Virginia….) on false confessions and their proposed causes.  Grits notes that 

most police interrogation training in the United States is based on the so-called “Reid method,” which teaches there are three stages to the process of questioning suspects: Behavior analysis, the interview, and the interrogation.


Much of the behavioral analysis taught by Reid and Associates amounts to “faux psychology,” said [Richard] Leo (San Francisco academic presenting to the above said group), about how guilty and innocent people behave that doesn’t stand up to scholarly rigor. Police are taught to believe these methods are so reliable that officers become “human lie detectors,” but excessive confidence in their ability to read deception cues can cause police to inadvertently assume guilt. That can directly lead to the more critical mistake: Moving too quickly from interview to an interrogation.

This guy is a perfect example of this.  For years I have been watching all of those cold case murder investigation shows.  In many, many of them, there is one central detective that was originally on the case, who was convinced that so and so committed the crime – despite the evidence.  Detectives are trained to believe that they can be human lie detectors, and it becomes personal to them – so much so that they start to have tunnel vision.  Then, 30 years later you see the case on some show, and you think, how could they focus on that person when it was obviously the other person?  It works the same way with false confessions.  Some “interviewees” can actually be convinced that they did have something to do with the crime.  Others can be tricked into confessing some guilt or sorrow regarding the victim, which can be portrayed as a confession.

I think John Grisham’s book, “The Innocent Man” should be required reading for criminal defense attorneys.  It will blow your mind how in one small town, so many people could be convicted of false confessions using the same flawed tactics by investigators.  Specifically, when you take an overbearing interrogator and match that person with a guarded, feeble, shy, and honest “interviewee,” the chances rise dramatically that the innocent “interviewee” will says something incriminating.  Meanwhile the real guilty person is long gone.

 – John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

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