Silence is golden

Christianity teaches that repentance is essential to the life of faith. But what about people who confess to crimes they did not commit? The Economist reports on the phenomenon of false confessions:

SINCE 1992 the Innocence Project, an American legal charity, has used DNA evidence to help exonerate 271 people who were wrongly convicted of crimes, sometimes after they had served dozens of years in prison. But a mystery has emerged from the case reports. Despite being innocent, around a quarter of these people had confessed or pleaded guilty to the offences of which they were accused.

It seems hard to imagine that anyone of sound mind would take the blame for something he did not do. But several researchers have found it surprisingly easy to make people fess up to invented misdemeanours. Admittedly these confessions are taking place in a laboratory rather than an interrogation room, so the stakes might not appear that high to the confessor. On the other hand, the pressures that can be brought to bear in a police station are much stronger than those in a lab. The upshot is that it seems worryingly simple to extract a false confession from someone—which he might find hard subsequently to retract.

Dr Kassin suggests that participants may have the naive—though common—belief that the world is a just place, and that their innocence will emerge in the end, particularly in the case of the alleged video evidence. One participant, for example, told him, “it made it easier [to sign the confession] because I had nothing to hide. The cameras would prove it.”

In cases like that, confession is seen as a way to end an unpleasant interrogation. But it is a risky one. In the real world, such faith can be misplaced. Though a lot of jurisdictions require corroborating evidence, in practice self-condemnation is pretty damning—and, it seems, surprisingly easy to induce.

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