Why false confessions are so common

| Jun 26, 2017 | Post-conviction Relief |

About 25 percent of people who receive a wrong conviction either made a false confession or an incriminating statement that prosecutors then used to convict them. Why would an innocent person confess to a crime? Unfortunately, it happens all too often, according to the Innocence Project, which reports 254 people exonerated in the past two decades. 

A false confession is an untrue statement the defendant makes which authorities treat as a confession. They may also misinterpret something the defendant says as a confession when he or she did not mean it to be an admission of guilt. Authorities may also claim that the defendant made a confession, even though the defendant denies it. 

Factors which can contribute to making false confessions include:

  • Duress
  • Mental impairment from mental illness, drugs or alcohol
  • Diminished capacity
  • Ignorance of the law
  • Fear of violence
  • Coercion by the authorities
  • Misunderstanding the situation
  • Threat of a harsh sentence if convicted 

People with mental disabilities or children are susceptible to manipulation that leads to a confession because they often want to cooperate with authorities. In other circumstances, adults who are mentally capable often confess out of exhaustion or a belief that they can prove their innocence. To get a confession, law enforcement may use trickery in an interrogation room as a means to coerce an innocent person.

Even when DNA evidence exonerates a person, it can be difficult to get justice once he or she has been denied the right to due process and a fair trial. However, there are many reforms under way which may prevent false confessions, and sometimes it is possible to appeal a decision based on violations of constitutional rights. Until the legal system has corrected the flaws that lead to unfair convictions, it is important for people facing criminal charges to understand that they do have options. A criminal defense attorney can explain these and prepare a plan to protect their freedom and their future.