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How do people get tricked into false confessions?

On Behalf of | Apr 8, 2022 | Felonies |

You’re suspected of a crime, but you’re 100% innocent of any wrongdoing. So what harm could it possibly do to talk to the police?

Plenty. It’s estimated that roughly 27% of people who have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of homicides had confessed – despite being wholly innocent. (That number gets even higher, going up to 81%, when only those with intellectual or mental disabilities are considered.)

A confession is, naturally, a prosecutor’s best friend: It’s hard for jurors to imagine that anybody would confess to a crime they didn’t commit – yet it happens. In fact, the very interview technique that police use may actually encourage false confessions.

The problem with the Reid Technique

For decades, police have been taught to use what’s known as the “Reid Technique” when interviewing suspects. Some people simplify this into the “good cop/bad cop” model of interrogation. However, what the Reid Technique actually does is combine two powerful forces:

  • Psychological pressure that makes the subject feel as if they are somehow guilty or that the evidence against them is so overwhelming that they might as well confess
  • Sympathy and empathy as “escape hatches” that make the subject feel as if they can confess without moral culpability

For example, one interrogator may lie and tell a suspect that they already have their DNA evidence back from the lab, and it places them at the scene of the crime. They suggest the only thing the suspect can do to “save themselves” from worse punishment is to confess. The other interrogator may then sympathize with the suspect, blaming the victim, by saying things like, “It’s easy to understand why you lashed out.”

The Reid Technique is so effective at manipulating defendants that many confess just to get the interrogation to stop. Studies have found that fewer than 20% of suspects fail to invoke their rights against self-incrimination. They believe that innocence is its own defense and will ultimately save them – but that’s not how the criminal justice system works. If you’ve been accused of a serious crime, don’t speak to the police without legal guidance.