Coerced to Confess: The Psychology of False Confessions

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

On a spring night in 1989, a 28 year-old white woman was brutally raped and nearly murdered while jogging through Central Park. Early in their investigation, police brought in five black and hispanic teenage boys between the ages of 14 and 16 for questioning. During interrogations lasting up to 30 hours, all five confessed to taking part in the crime. Within 72 hours of the attack, the jogger still in a coma, the NYPD believed they had solved the crime.

The case quickly gained national attention and set off a media storm about crime, race, and the justice system in America. Then New York City Mayor Ed Koch called it the “crime of the century.” Twelve days after the arrest of the five boys, Donald Trump took out full page ads in The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post and New York Newsday calling for New York to “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”

But those five teenage boys — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Kharey Wise, who became known as the Central Park Five — didn’t commit the crime. They had falsely confessed. Fast-forward to 2002, when convicted rapist and murder, Mathias Reyes, admitted to the rape of the jogger. An analysis of the DNA evidence confirmed that he was the rapist, and the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated.

(Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Yusef Salaam, one of the “Central Park Five” in 1989 (Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Yet, in 1989, despite quickly recanting their confessions, despite the lack of physical evidence linking them to the crime, and despite the only DNA evidence taken from the victim belonging to a man (Reyes) not one of the five, the New York City District Attorney prosecuted and juries convicted the five boys. Collectively they spent about 41 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.

It was only just last month that the case of the Central Park Five finally came to a close. A Federal judge in New York approved a $41 million dollar settlement between New York City and The Central Park Five in a civil case the five men brought against the city in 2003, after their convictions were overturned. Despite the settlement, New York City still denies any wrongdoing in the case.

The recent settlement of the Central Park Five case got us thinking about the psychology behind false confessions. Why did they confess to crimes they did not commit? Why did these confessions trump all other evidence in the case? Why did the judge, jury, and DA place so much emphasis on the confessions, despite conflicting DNA and non-existent physical evidence? And, most importantly, is it possible to prevent false confessions that can lead to such serious breakdowns of justice?

We spoke with Saul Kassin, Psychology Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Williams College, who has researched false confessions for over thirty years, to find out more about the Central Park Five case, why people confess to crimes they did not commit, and how certain interrogation techniques can promote or limit the incidence of false confessions. (Full disclosure: Saul Kassin serves on the Advisory Board of this publication.)

Evan Nesterak: What factors contribute to why a person, and in the case of the Central Park Five, five teenagers, would confess to a crime they didn’t commit?

Saul Kassin: That is in some ways the ultimate question, because it is the most counterintuitive behavior, I think, that people can conceive of. Over the years, I have found that lay people have an easier time understanding why someone would kill themselves — they understand suicide and the motivations for it — than they do why someone would confess to a crime he did not commit.

The reason why people confess to crimes they did not commit is because they are subject to pressures of interrogation, a highly aggressive form of social influence. In the interrogation, especially in American style interrogation, people can become so stressed and so broken down and they start to feel so hopeless about their current situation that they come to believe in a rational way a confession is in their best interest. In some cases, they get so confused by the fact that American police are permitted to lie about evidence — and I mean lie about DNA, prints, surveillance footage, polygraph results — that in some cases people accused of crimes, particularly kids and others who are limited intellectually, become so confused by the lies that they actually come to believe they have committed this crime they did not commit. They wonder why it is they can’t recall it. They are led to believe that it is possible for people to transgress without awareness, for people to do something terrible and repress it. So they develop basically an inference that they must have committed this crime.

I have found that lay people have an easier time understanding why someone would kill themselves…than they do why someone would confess to a crime he did not commit.

Years ago, my colleague (Larry Wrightsman) and I identified two types of false confessions that come from police interrogation. One we called coerced-compliant false confessions. These are cases, like the Central Park jogger case, where innocent people, who know they are innocent become so stressed, so broken down, and so confused as to what their best means of escape is that they confess fully knowing they’re innocent. In these cases they typically recant the confession almost immediately as soon as the pressure of the situation is lifted. The other type of confession is what we called coerced-internalized false confessions, and these are the cases where individuals actually come to believe in their own guilt as a function of the lies and their own suggestibility.

The Central Park jogger case involves clearly coerced-compliant false confessions. That was a case in which five kids, 14, 15, and 16 years old, each of them [was] lead to believe that he would get to go home if he confessed. Each one calculated–given that they had been there from 14-30 hours of interrogation under tremendous pressure–that it was in his own best interest to cooperate.

Interestingly none of them actually confessed to raping the jogger. Each one implicated the four others and each one stated that he himself played a minimal role. So collectively there were five confessions, but in fact each defendant pointed a finger at the others.

EN: Why do you think despite all the evidence in the Central Park Five case pointing to someone other than the 5 boys, that their confessions were still seen as enough evidence to prosecute and convict all of them? Why do you think the confessions held so much weight?

SK: It’s virtually impossible for judges and juries to see past confessions whether they’re true or false. You’re absolutely right about the Central Park jogger case. Most people don’t realize, as a matter of history, that these five kids were coerced into confession in the spring of 1989 within 72 hours of the crime. That summer, before they went to trial, the DNA results came back from the FBI lab. There were three sets of semen samples picked up from the victim and the crime scene. All three samples were linked to a single person, and that person was not any of the five. The prosecutors knew that at the time and had to make a decision. The decision they made was, despite the DNA, they could still get [convictions] on the theory that just because we didn’t get all of them, doesn’t mean we didn’t get some of them.

When you stop to think about that theory, it implied that each of the five boys was for some reason protecting some unknown, unnamed sixth individual. Despite all the pressure the boys were under, implicating themselves, implicating their friends, somehow all of them protected somebody else. So that fact, that the DNA was available, contradicted their confession. Since the now-known-by-DNA rapist did not appear in any of their stories, it means that their confessions were false as a factual matter.

That was known to the judge when he ruled the confessions voluntary at a pretrial hearing. It was known to the two juries that later convicted the boys. But as the jurors later said afterwards, ‘they confessed.’ And if you think the odds of a single false confession are unlikely, what are the odds of five false confessions in a single case. Nobody could fathom the possibility that five boys gave false confessions.

What makes the confessions so compelling that even DNA can’t destroy them, is that the confessions in these cases were not simple admissions of guilt. Rather, a confession is a statement that says, this is what I did, this how I did it, this is why I did it. These are statements filled with vivid details, often accurate details that only the perpetrator could have known. They are statements that contain expressions of remorse and apologies. One of the Central Park Five, Kharey Wise could be seen on tape saying this was my first rape and it’s going to be my last. I’m really sorry. I’m not going to do this again.

I just don’t see how a judge or a jury can look past those kinds of statements. They contain the details and they contain all the cues that we look for in credible statements. The reason these statements are so tricky for judges and juries is that typically what they get to see is only the confession on camera. What they don’t get to see, and never saw in those Central Park jogger cases, was the 14 to 30 hours of interrogation that preceded and produced those confessions.

Social psychologists have long talked about the Fundamental Attribution Error. We observe a person’s behavior and we immediately draw the inference that that behavior reflects on that person. It is the same thing that happens with juries. They watch somebody confessing, they fully realize nobody confesses to a crime he didn’t commit, unless he committed it. And so they look at that confession, and they initially believe it, they reflexively believe it. The reason they reflexively believe it is it contains all those content cues. What they don’t see are all the situational forces that came to bear on these kids, and why it is they seem to know things about the crime that only the perpetrator could have known. It’s not until a judge and a jury can watch the entire process that they can even hope to get it right.

EN: That leads into the recent Department of Justice announcement that it will require interrogations to be recorded, something you’ve recommended for a while. Do you think this will limit the number of instances of false confessions?

SK: I do. By and large all over the country where law enforcement have gone to a taping mechanism, they come out and rave about it. Once they start to tape, they won’t want to stop– that’s what the evidence has shown. It’s hard for people to imagine a win-win-win situation in almost anything in life, but I think that’s exactly what this is.

As soon as you put a camera in the interrogation room, it makes the detectives who do the interrogations more accountable for their actions. It means they will likely not use the most aggressive and most egregious tactics of interrogation, the type that would produce false confessions. Right away I think the presence of a camera has the potential to deter a number of false confessions.

Second, even if it doesn’t in some cases deter the use of egregious tactics and the production of false confessions, it now provides judges with an opportunity to evaluate the situation and circumstances under which the confession was taken. Before a confession ever gets to a jury, at a pretrial hearing, the judge rules whether the confession was voluntary or coerced. If it was not voluntary, if it was coerced, then the judge will remove it from evidence and the jury never gets to see it.

Well, how can a judge determine if a confession was voluntary if he or she does not see the process? By observing recorded interrogations, judges will make more informed judgments of voluntariness. And if they do deem a confession to be voluntary, juries are in a better position to determine whether that confession is credible, or whether so much pressure was brought to bear on the suspect that they cannot trust it.

The third winner in the situation is police. Attorney Tom Sullivan has conducted hundreds of phone interviews with police detectives all over the country who have gone to taping, and uniformly, almost to a person, they now embrace it. The reason is they say they no longer have to spend as much time in court defending their practices. If a defendant claims he was coerced, turn on the tape. Second, many of them say that they get to review the tapes and often what they see in the tapes sheds light on the suspect’s guilt or innocence.

I think that it is a win for defendants, a win for police, and win for judges and juries.

EN: One of the most prominent methods used by police and other law enforcement agencies for interrogating suspects is The Reid Technique, a very aggressive interrogation method linked to the production of false confessions. You’ve been very critical of the Reid technique, for its lack of grounding in behavioral science research. Can you describe the Reid technique and your critique of it?

SK: I don’t think we have enough time for my critiques of the Reid Technique. It’s psychological, but not informed by psychology.

In the most general of terms, it is a two-step process. You bring an individual in who may or may not become a suspect and you interview the person. In that pre-interrogation interview they train their detectives to use all sorts of behavioral cues, verbal and nonverbal cues, to determine whether this person is lying or telling the truth. Using these behavioral cues, they claim that they can train interrogators up to an 85 or 90 percent level of accuracy in judging truth or deception. That number is out of step with all of science of human lie detection, which suggests that people are barely better than they would be by flipping a coin. [This] suggests that the behavioral cues which are recommended by the Reid Technique — whether or not the suspect breaks eye contact, whether the suspect is fidgety, whether the suspect crosses his legs or folds his arms, — are not significantly diagnostic of deception.

When you train people in using the cues recommended by the Reid technique…they don’t become better human lie detectors; they only become more confident lie detectors. That’s not a good combination.

Yet, the judgment made at that point is critical because if in the interrogator’s judgment this person is telling the truth they send him or her home and that’s the end of it. If in their judgment the person is lying, however, then they move on to the next step: Interrogation. At first glance, the fact that there is this two-step process makes sense. First, a diagnostic process is used. Then only those who are seen as deceptive are interrogated. There problem is, first of all the diagnostic tool doesn’t work, and there is now empirical research showing that when you train people in using the cues recommended by the Reid technique, it doesn’t make them any better at what they do, it only makes them more confident. They don’t become better human lie detectors; they only become more confident lie detectors. That’s not a good combination.

When an interrogator moves a suspect on to the process of interrogation, which is accusatory and confrontational, it means also that the process of interrogation is by definition a guilt presumptive process. The judgment has already been made that the suspect is lying and is a criminal. It is therefore no surprise that opening salvo of a Reid-style interrogation is an [accusatory] statement — we know you did this, don’t lie.

The process of the Reid interrogation therefore is strictly presumptive of guilt. Once you understand that, you understand the very relentless nature of so many interrogations that have produced false confessions. Sometimes you want to rip your hair out watching a suspect say 60,70, 80 times I didn’t do this, and with every denial he or she is called a liar. You wonder if there is anything at all that this person can do to convince this interrogator of his innocence.

Once a person is judged deceptive, the Reid steps are as follows. First, they isolate the suspect. That means interrogations are not conducted in a suspect’s living room, in a car, [or] out on the street on a park bench. They bring the suspect into the police station–alone, without a lawyer, without friends, without family members, and that includes 16 year-old and 17 year-old kids. Parents don’t accompany them; they are brought into the station alone.

They are isolated in a special interview room that is specced out by the Reid-style approach. It should be small, windowless, barely furnished, and soundproof, so that the suspect can’t hear voices and phones ringing and whatnot. The goal is to create an environment in which the suspect feels out of sorts, isolated, alone, and uncomfortable.

In this isolated setting, some steps are designed to break the suspect down in to a state of despair. When the suspect protests his innocence, the trained interrogator overcomes those denials, and overcomes objections. In fact,  if the suspect starts to mount a defense, the trained interrogator will literally take his or her hand, put it up to the suspect’s face and say stop, I’ll hear from you later. For all practical purposes, at this point, the suspect is the offender.  I have heard some investigators use those terms interchangeably.

I was at a conference several years ago when the president of John Reid and Associates of the Reid technique, literally said, when asked a question: Aren’t you concerned about the possibility of getting false confessions from innocent people? And his answer was: No because we don’t interrogate innocent people. I think that says a lot about what comes next.

So now we’re in the interrogation room. The suspect is isolated, confronted with accusations, and not allowed to mount a defense. As part of the weaponry that the interrogator uses to support the accusation of guilt is to confront the suspect with evidence—and even to lie about the evidence. In the United States — and most European countries, they don’t understand this — police are allowed to overtly lie about the evidence. That has a way of breaking suspects down into a state of despair, making them feel as if they have to cooperate, and they need to extricate themselves and make the best of a bad situation. If that means confession, well then I guess that is necessary.

At the same time that a message of despair is being pounded into the suspect, there’s another set of tactics that are being developed, what is often referred to in the Reid technique as theme development. The suspect is shown sympathy and understanding — Look, I know you did this, but I think you’re a good person. I think that you didn’t do this on purpose. I don’t think you intended to commit this crime. I think maybe you were provoked. Maybe somebody put you up to it. Maybe you had too much to drink.

A number of justifications are suggested that help to minimize and normalize the crime and provide face-saving moral excuses.  In fact I’ve heard tapes of interrogators who say, you know what if I were in your situation, I probably would’ve done the same thing. Statements of this nature communicate to a suspect the belief that their alleged actions are not in some moral way reprehensible. All this can lead suspects under stress to infer leniency. The Reid-trained interrogator will say: I never made that promise. If he wants to infer leniency, that’s wishful thinking. But the fact of the matter is, and we’ve shown this in laboratory experiments, when people hear these minimizing remarks and then we ask them to indicate what they expect is going to happen upon confession, the inference they draw is leniency, in the same way as if leniency were explicitly promised.

So we know what this Reid technique does is it puts people under stress, under the stress of isolation, it breaks them down, makes them seek a way out, and then provides confession as an opportunity to minimize the cost of what will happen next, and in a nutshell that is the Reid Technique.

EN: It sounds almost like a recipe for producing a false-confession.

SK: It’s a recipe for producing a confession. I have long said that if the Reid technique were used only on criminals, it would be perfect, [a] great technique. The problem is, despite the belief that they have already identified and sent home the innocent, they often interrogate innocent people, and these tactics, while they are very effective on criminals are also effective with innocent people.

There is an additional wrinkle to the innocent person in the interrogation room. I hear it from almost every false confessor I have talked to. While being broken down, at some level, they all realize look, I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m innocent. They bank on that innocence. They believe, naively, that their innocence will set them free. They think they can sign a confession now, and when the cops conduct the rest of their investigation they will realize that the suspect is innocent and everything will be okay. Innocent people have this naive phenomenology that their innocence will set them free.

EN: What do you think is the biggest misconception surrounding false confessions?

SK: I think there are two glaring misconceptions that make it really hard for all of us, and that includes me. I’m a New Yorker. I remember that Central Park jogger case when it opened. And I, while a critical consumer of confessions if anybody is, ultimately accepted those confessions at that time. It just seemed inconceivable to me that five boys independently would incriminate themselves. It did not occur to me in 1989 what shenanigans behind closed doors may have produced those confessions.

I think there are two myths that people hold The first is the myth that I would never confess to a crime I did not commit. When I ask that question, almost to a person, everybody has this response — Unless you put a gun to my head, there is no way I would confess to a rape or a murder or something that serious unless I did it. That is a misconception that can only be held by people  have never been put through a police interrogation, and they just don’t understand the pressure that is brought to bear.

Innocent people have this naive phenomenology that their innocence will set them free.

In a courtroom, judges and juries often see the confession, but not the interrogation that produced it, so they do not understand what the interrogation process looks like. I wouldn’t confess to a crime that I did not commit becomes the framework and the anchor point for judging other people — if somebody confesses he or must be guilty because if he was innocent he would not have confessed.

The Second myth is, I’d know a false confession if I saw one. The idea that people have in their minds is that if you force somebody to confess, that act of compliance will be so obvious. It will come through in their demeanor, it’ll come through in their words – and so  I would know a false confession if I saw one.

Several years ago my colleagues and I went to a prison outside of Boston, and we interviewed prisoners and we had them state their confessions on camera to the crimes for which they were incarcerated.  Then we had each of them make up a confession to a crime we knew they did not commit. We told them what the crime was, and asked them to make up a confession.

We showed [the videos] to police officers. We showed them to college students. On average people could not tell the difference. The police officers were more confident than the college students, but neither group was accurate in telling which confession was true and which was false. My colleagues and I recently replicated that study using juvenile detainees.

It is clear that whether the confessor is a juvenile or an adult, people, by watching only the confession, cannot tell the difference between a true confession and a false confession. That is the primary reason I think it is so important to see the process. Juries don’t stand a chance of making accurate judgments if they don’t see the context, the process, and the pressure that was brought to bear on that confession.

EN: You’ve been working on confessions and interrogations for over 35 years. If you could make one change to justice system regarding interrogations what would it be?

SK: In 2010, my colleagues and I published a white paper for the American Psychology- Law Society and the one recommendation we made above of all else, was for the mandatory recording of all suspect interviews and interrogations. The DC Metro police have an ideal system right now. They don’t talk to a suspect until he comes into the interview room, and as soon as people walk into that interview room, two things happen: the lights turn on, and the camera turns on. I believe that the most important means of reform is to ensure the videotaping of the entire process, without exception, without loopholes; the entire process from start to finish.

Now, second to that, I would certainly recommend a certain degree of overhaul, or at least tinkering with the Reid-style method of interrogation. In England, and elsewhere in Europe, there is a whole other style of non-confrontational interrogation that has developed over the years, called investigative interviewing. It’s not confrontational, and to summarize in a single sentence what one of my colleagues from England has said about it, “You’d be amazed at how much people tell you when you’re nice to them.”

[Another] recommendation I would make is for the courts to impose an absolute ban on lying to suspects about evidence. In almost every single false confession case I have ever seen, the presence of false evidence is implicated, and it is almost invariably the straw that breaks the innocent suspect’s back.

Police should not be permitted by law to lie about evidence. It will in the long run lose the public’s trust. It also increases the risk of false confession. If a Reid style interrogation is premised on the idea that suspects are confronted with real evidence, fine– confront your suspect with real evidence. But as soon as that approach permits a detective to confront a suspect with manufactured evidence, and outright lies about the evidence, that influences not only the guilty suspect but puts the innocent person at risk as well–and that is problematic.