One of the most difficult issues in criminal defense is the problem of false confessions. The subject is much too big and complicated to thoroughly discuss in a blog post, but we will provide an introduction here.
According to the Innocence Project, a civil rights organization, false confessions play a major role in wrongful convictions. In fact, the organization studied 225 cases in which defendants were convicted and then later cleared through DNA evidence, and found that 23% of them involved false confessions.
Why do people make false confessions?
Some researchers have identified three categories of false confessions:
- Voluntary: The defendant volunteers a confession to the authorities. Sometimes this is out of a misguided urge to gain notoriety. In other cases, it is to deflect the blame from someone else.
- Compliant: The defendant gives in to the social pressure to falsely confess to a crime. This sometimes happens after a long interrogation in which police wear down a suspect’s resistance. In some cases, the police promise a suspect leniency if they confess. The exhausted suspect may simply tell the police what they want to hear.
- Persuaded: In this category, police interrogation or other forces may cause the suspect to doubt their own memory. They come to believe that they actually committed the crime.
Protections against false confessions
There are two major legal protections against false confessions. The first is the familiar “right to remain silent,” which is familiar to many of us through the Miranda warnings we hear on television shows whenever police arrest a suspect.
The second is known as the voluntariness requirement. Confessions may be admissible in court only when they were given voluntarily.
Arguing against the evidence
If the prosecution can say that the defendant confessed to the crime, then this is most likely going to be the centerpiece of their case. However, if the defendant can show that the confession was false — whether because of coercion or some other fact — they can defeat this major pillar of the prosecution’s strategy.
This wouldn’t necessarily mean that the prosecution would have to drop its case. It might have other evidence suggesting guilt. However, by knocking down this part of the evidence, the defendant would greatly improve their chances. In some cases, this argument may come up at trial, in others it may be on appeal or during a motion for post-conviction relief.