If you were under interrogation, would you confess to a crime you didn’t commit?
It’s more common than you might think. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 27 percent of people in the registry who were accused of homicide gave false confessions, and 81 percent of people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities did the same when they were accused of homicide.
Scientists are working to understand more about the psychology of false confessions. In “The confession,” an article in the journal Science, journalist Douglas Starr focuses on one of them. Starr features Saul Kassin, a psychologist and interrogation expert who is changing the way law enforcement thinks about interrogation.
Kassin has testified in criminal matters, such as the one concerning Barry Laughman, a 24-year-old with an intellectual disability who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1988. His research has revealed more about how police interrogation techniques, such as applying increased psychological pressure and bluffing with suggestions of additional incriminating evidence, put people at risk for false confessions.
Starr delves into that research and speaks with detractors who say Kassin’s studies don’t apply to real-life interrogations. He paints a picture of a confrontational criminal justice system that inadvertently triggers false confessions.
It’s a system that’s primed for change. “Confessions are being questioned as never before,” Starr writes, “not just by defense lawyers, but by lawmakers and some police departments, which are reexamining their approach to interrogation.”
His incisive examination of the present and future of interrogation provokes questions about how to move forward, and a reconsideration of the lives that have been irrevocably changed by false testimony.