Would you confess to a crime you didn’t commit?
It’s a question to which most people would respond with a confident and resounding “no”.
That is because few people are aware of the techniques police in the United States are permitted to use during interrogations; techniques that presume guilt and are designed to break people down into a sense of complete despair before offering them one route out: a confession.
It's not just one kind of person who gives a false confession. We are all vulnerable under the circumstances of interrogation.
In fact, in the US, more than 25 percent of overturned wrongful convictions involve a false confession.
“Any time you do an exoneration case where there’s been a false confession, it’s like trying to ride a tricycle uphill,” explains defence attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen. “Everybody’s already against you, the person’s been convicted by a jury, the judge thinks he’s guilty, the jury thinks he’s guilty. Now you have to convince everybody that they’re wrong.”
And, according to psychologist and false confessions expert, Saul Kassin, “It’s not just one kind of person who gives a false confession. We are all vulnerable under the circumstances of interrogation.”
Through case studies, a dissection of police interrogation techniques and the testimonies of people who have falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit, the defence attorney and psychologist reveal just how an innocent person can be coerced into confessing and, in some instances, even into believing in their own guilt.
With video footage of the interrogations of then 16-year-old Korey Wise, who was convicted in the infamous Central Park Jogger case, and 14-year-old Lorenzo Montoya, sentenced to life for a murder he didn’t commit, False Confessions exposes a justice system that routinely uses brutal psychological manipulation, including lying about evidence, to secure a confession.
Both have since been released and exonerated, after serving 13 and 14 years respectively. But how many other innocent people remain imprisoned on the basis of false confessions? And can Fisher-Byrialsen succeed in getting the conviction of Renay Lynch, who has spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit, overturned?
By Katrine Philp
When I first heard of false confessions, my initial thought was that I would never confess to a crime I had not committed.
I simply couldn’t imagine a situation in which that would happen – unless torture was used against me, but it was still inconceivable to me in US interrogation situations. So it came as quite a surprise that the phenomenon was such common knowledge in the US, among professionals and the general public alike.
When I met Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, she had just wrapped up an action for damages for Korey Wise in the infamous Central Park Jogger Case. Korey had been acquitted due to DNA evidence after 13 years in prison after he – at the age of 14 – had been pressured to confess to sexual assault of a woman in Central Park.
This became an historic case for New York City and an important launch pad for Jane in her struggle to help innocent people, who had given false confessions, get out of prison. At this point in time, Jane had four active cases involving false confessions, and I started investigating the subject more thoroughly.
I was overwhelmed with contempt when I heard Jane’s clients sharing their experiences of the police tricking them, lying to them and threatening them into confessing to a crime they hadn’t committed. So much pressure had been exerted on them that they, in the end, felt that they had only one way out of it – giving in and “cooperating”.
The desire to get out of the situation, out of the stuffy interrogation room and away from the constant pressure from the police – as well as the hope that the police would eventually find the right perpetrator – made them yield and give the police what they wanted.
None of them ever imagined that they would end up in jail, because they were innocent, of course.
But what none of them realised was that a confession can be the sole piece of evidence in the US. In many cases, the investigation ends once a confession has been secured. Supplemental evidence isn’t necessarily needed, and once a sentence has been passed, it’s almost impossible to have it overturned.
Miscarriage of justice
That the police are allowed to lie about evidence and manipulate the suspect to confess is the ultimate violation and results in a high number of convicted innocent people.
It is such an intense execution of power, a miscarriage of justice, and the people affected have their lives destroyed – many of them ending up with extended prison sentences.
As I gradually discovered how well-orchestrated the employed interrogation techniques are, my indignation and anger grew. That something like this is taking place – and is completely legal – is frightening.
These techniques are designed to make a guilty suspect confess, but they are so effective that they also take quite a few innocent suspects with them. No one can escape this technique once a “skilled” interrogator has become convinced that he is facing a guilty party.
The psychological aspect, in particular, occupied me quite a deal from the very beginning.
I was curious about finding out what exactly it was that could make someone confess to a crime they hadn’t committed. What psychological methods are employed and why these techniques are so effective?
What I discovered was that the proper combination of misleading questions, faulty conclusions about the suspect’s posture and answers, traps, lies and debatable psychological explanations made it easy to force and manipulate someone into a false confession.
I now have no doubt that the same could happen to me.
It could happen to anyone
Going through this filmmaking process has only deepened my frustration. The average individual may very well be aware of the phenomenon of false confessions – most people in the US have heard about it – but only a few know why they happen and what’s behind them.
What techniques are employed and how particularly designed they are to force a confession out of you.
Everybody thinks: “Sure, but it won’t happen to me.” But it just might one day. It could happen to anyone. And it is of utmost importance that light is shed on this subject as it is quite simply unacceptable that it is perfectly legal that this violation is conducted by society.
With a few simple measures – such as forbidding police to lie, videotaping all interrogations, and requiring that there should always be additional evidence in order to convict someone – a lot of false confessions would be stamped out.
I sincerely hope that this film will help in igniting a debate so that we in the future can have more trust in our society ruled by law and that those exerting power in our society are acting justly.