Why we Confess to Crimes we Didn’t Commit

The three human errors that lead to a false confession

David McCallum’s Reunion with his Mother. Image taken from the documentary David and Me

In 1985, David McCallum III and Willie Stuckey confessed to a crime they didn’t commit. They were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to prison.

29 years later, they were exonerated. In a bittersweet ending, David walked free but without his friend, for a cruel twist of fate had taken Willie too early to his grave.

In our fight for David’s freedom, many of the naysayers commonly quipped, “why would you ever confess to a crime you didn’t commit?” First, let’s begin by setting the record straight — there are thousands of wrongfully convicted men and women in the US alone.

The US has a staggering prison population, that even if only 1% were innocent that would mean over 10,000 people have been dealt a gross miscarriage of justice (Alexander, 2012).

In a landmark study by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet, 49 police induced confessions were found to be the causal role of wrongful convictions from a small sample of 350 cases between 1900 and 1987 (1987). In fact, this type of cause was only topped by perjury from prosecution witnesses and eyewitness misidentification.

False confessions (or police induced confessions) are difficult to comprehend if you are making the presumption that you would never do such a thing under your own lived heuristic. But the method by which a false confession is made is far more insidious and will make you think twice before speaking to police without representation.

Joseph Green and Diana Brumen portraying Gary and Sally Gauger in the docu-drama, The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

“I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit.”

It’s a cold morning somewhere in farm-country, Illinois, April 8th, 1993. You awake to the sound of rain pattering on your caravan window. You’ve woken later than usual. Typically, the farm is abuzz rife with work. You dress, head out to your workshop and start work by moving plants to the hotbed yonder outback. It’s quiet, and your parents are nowhere to be seen, but they had been planning a trip to Sugar Grove, so perhaps they left early.

By night they had not returned — now you’re worried that perhaps they were in a car accident. You stay by the phone till midnight and go to bed with the intention of calling the police if the situation does not change.

Morning arrives. You get up to call the police and a customer comes walking up the driveway looking for motorcycle parts. In the backroom of the garage, where you thought the parts might be, you find your father’s body.

An hour and a half later, police find your mother in a trailer at the front of the house, covered with rugs and pillows. Both your parents had their throats slashed.

6 hours have passed in the interrogation room. You’ve just taken a polygraph test. They won’t let you sleep, or lie down. And the polygrapher examiner said he cannot progress you because of “flat lines due to fatigue”. You’re emotionally exhausted — you just found your parent's bodies in the morning.

At 1 am, the police show you the pictures of your parent's throats pulled open and are yelling “how could you do this! The woman that gave birth to you!”

They tell you they already have all the evidence, the fingerprints, the weapon, and that they didn’t even need your confession. They tell you that they can't lie to you or they would lose their jobs and state that you experienced a blackout. You say:

Look, if I killed my parents I want to know about it.

You give a vision statement — a hypothetical account of what you might’ve done — a suggestion by the detectives to try and jog your memory. They don’t let you say anything else other than how you would’ve done it, and if you do, they scream at you. You’ve just finished accounting for how you would’ve killed your mother, you cry…then you tell them how you would’ve killed your father.

In the end, you state this is all hypothetical, that you have no memory of any of this.

At the trial, they said you were never under arrest, that you volunteered to chat with them for over 12 hours, that you could’ve gone home any time you wanted but instead you confessed to things only the killer would know. But nothing was recorded, and nothing was written down (Blank & Jensen, 2004).

The autopsies revealed everything you said in the statements was incorrect, nevertheless, you were found guilty of murdering your parents and sentenced to death.

Gary was exonerated two years later when others confessed to the crime (the murder was a result of a gang initiation ritual)

The story above is about the life of Gary Gauger. It is one of the most well-known cases of police induced confessions; and infuriatingly, there isn’t just one single reason this anomaly occurred. Confessions like these result from a multi-sequence process of influence, persuasion, and compliance, usually involving psychological coercion; police typically “elicit false confessions under certain conditions of interrogation…and individuals with certain personality traits and dispositions are more easily pressured into giving false confessions” (Drizin & Leo, 2012).

Steve Drizin and Richard A. Leo refer to these errors of justice under three headings:

  1. Misclassification Error: Investigators first misclassify an innocent person as guilty
  2. Coercion Error: They subject him to a guilt-presumptive, accusatory interrogation, that invariably involves lies about evidence and often the repeated use of implicit or explicit promises and threats
  3. Contamination Error: Once they have elicited a false confession, they pressure the suspect to provide a postadmission narrative that they jointly shape, often supplying the innocent suspect with the (public and non-public) facts of the crime — “things only the killer would know” (2012).

The Misclassification Error

The Sheriff's deputies in Illinois felt Gary was lying due to his lack of emotion displayed at finding his parents brutally murdered. Apparently, his reaction wasn’t one that would be assumed to happen upon seeing the lifeless bodies of your parents…

Alternatively, police instinct decided Jeffrey Deskovic was guilty because he was overly emotional in discovering that his classmate, Andrea Correa, had been murdered.

The myth of police gut instinct, or living, breathing lie detectors that can detect falsity in the slightest body movement is a dangerous notion.

There is no universal human archetype or gesture that belies deception or truth (Lykken, 1998).

This gut reaction leads to confirmation bias, where one seeks to confirm their own beliefs at the exclusion of anything else that might deny it — including looking for other suspects or admitting a mistake…

Similarly, the second myth that a suspect profile can be created solely from the crime scene and other evidence can cause a focus on certain archetypes to the exclusion of anything different to that profile. Deskovic (featured further below) fit the bill for being “the right race, the right age, the right height; he knew the victim; and he was a loner who lacked confidence around women and who had allegedly assaulted his mother” (Drizin & Leo, 2012). However, the actual criminal was the complete opposite of everything the profile hypothesized.

This is all coupled on top of the pressure to find the culprit, coming from every direction, and the high stakes in that if the criminal is not brought to justice soon, another life may be lost. This leads to investigator response bias, where the investigator presumes guilt with almost concrete certainty and increases the chances of leading to an accusatorial interrogation — like the one Gary, Jeffrey, or David and Willie, encountered (Meissner and Kassin 2002).

Police, although trained, are human no less, and are susceptible to dangerous biases that undermine the integrity of their decision-making processes. As humans, we attribute more meaning to events that may be warranted and have a tenacious predisposition to prove or seek out information that fits our own beliefs and exclude everything that does not.

The Coercion Error

Both Gary and Jeffrey were repeatedly told by the detectives that they already had all the evidence they needed; in Jeffrey’s case, they advised him that if he did not confess he would go to prison, and if he complied, he would be allowed to go home. Neither had legal representation present, which, if were the case, would’ve rendered the latter attempts by the detectives ineffectual.

The purpose of this technique is to convince the suspect that the state’s case against him or her is so compelling and immutable that his or her guilt can be established beyond any possible doubt and that arrest, prosecution, and conviction are therefore inevitable (Drizin & Leo, 2012).

Coercion in today’s typical interrogation typically consists of promises of leniency or threats of harsher treatment. Although, in David’s interrogation, both he and Willie were physically abused. This leads to the second type of coercion, the feeling that you have no choice but to comply with the demands of the interrogator:

Suspects may perceive that they have no choice but to comply with the detectives wishes because they are fatigued or simply see no other way to escape an intolerably stressful experience (Drizin & Leo, 2012).

David’s story, though of the same vein, varies in the detective's use of conceit and deception.

A still taken from the documentary, David and Me

16-year-olds, David and Willie, were walking back home from a game of handball that would be their last. The police were looking for two African-American boys and these two would do.

Wille and David were put into different interrogation rooms and were told about a carjacking and a murder that had occurred in Aberdeen Park, Brooklyn. Neither had legal representation or parental guidance despite being the age of 16. A couple of hours later, and the detective told David, “Willie said you shot Nathan Blenner”.

The detective opened the door with Willie in tow, pointed to David, and said to Willie, “Is that him?” Willie nodded.

David, at first refused to comply. The detective then told him, “If you tell me what happened I will let you go home”. David said he did not know who Nathan Blenner was, that he had never driven a car in his life and that he had no idea what he was talking about. The detective slapped him across the face.

He picked up a chair threatening to hit him, and at that point, David was willing to say anything the detective wanted him to. He retold the information about the murder that he had just learned from the detective and pointed the finger back at Willie Stuckey.

The detective would say things like, “you saw this guy sit in the car, right?”, and all David had to do was say “right”. After the questioning finished, the detective led him into a room with a video recorder set-up, seated next to the DA, and said “you’re gonna go in there and repeat exactly what you repeated to me”.

Both boys had sealed their sentence.

Contamination Error

David’s post-admission narrative was a repetition of the facts and information the detective had fed to him. In effect, the detective contaminates the suspect's narrative. The detailed minutiae of the crime scene, “things only the killer (or police) would know”, helps to bolster the credibility of the admission.

But these “confessions” are entrenched with errors and inconsistencies. David said that he embellished his story to make it sound more believable, “I only heard one shot” — but Willie said there were three in his narrative.

However, one of the red flags that drew the attention of Innocence Projects around the world was that the detective fed both boys details about a woman who lived around the corner from the carjacking, whom the actual two suspects approached and then asked about her car. Both boys mentioned this woman in their narratives. The problem is, this woman's description of the two boys was totally different — precisely because she had never met Willie or David, and they had never met her. But this woman was never brought to trial due to ineffectual representation from their court-appointed lawyers (David’s was later disbarred).

With the help from countless Innocence Projects and Rubin Hurricane Carter’s “Dying Wish”, the late Ken Thompson (DA of Brooklyn) finally gave the men their freedom.

The author meeting David on the outside for the first time (2016)

DNA vs The Power of Police Induced Confessions

It’s 1989, Jeffrey Deskovic was facing trial for raping and murdering a 15-year old girl, Angela Correa. His confession contained facts that only the killer would know. 3 days after his indictment, the FBI disclosed to the DA that the semen found did not belong to Deskovic (Snyder et al., 2007, cited in Drizin & Leo, 2012). None of the hairs found on the victim's body matched Deskovic either.

One would believe the case to be dropped in the face of contrary DNA evidence, but in fact, the opposite occurred; the confession became the exclusive factor the DA relied on to secure a conviction. Those tiny details within his confession that “only the killer would know” were used to persuade the jury to his guilt; details such as Deskovic’s statement that he used a “Gatorade bottle” to strike her in the head. The DA noted that police had found a Gatorade cap nearby and that the injuries sustained matched that as made by such an object. Deskovic was sentenced to 15 years for her murder.

In 2006, the Innocence Project retested the semen using newer DNA technology; ‘the DNA was matched to a convicted murderer named Stephen Cunningham, who soon thereafter confessed to the crime. Deskovic was officially exonerated on November 2nd, 2006, after serving nearly 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.

This is the power of a police induced confession.

Final Remarks

A false confession is a sequence of events not tied to any one process. It requires the presence of confirmation bias:

The psychological tendency to seek out and interpret evidence in ways that support existing beliefs, perceptions, and expectations and to avoid or reject evidence that does not (Gilovich, 1991 cited in Drizin & Leo, 2012).

And the presence of Tunnel Vision to name but a few:

The psychological process whereby an individual focuses exclusively on one possibility or outcome to the exclusion of all others (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).

It then requires errors to be made on each branch of the judicial and executive level, from detective, to prosecutor, to judge, to jury, to appeal board. A confession is seen as the defining point of guilt rather than as something to be tested against, like a hypothesis.

Ensuring interrogations are recorded will help to prevent contamination, and that police are given proper interrogation, profile, and bias training, especially in understanding how their interrogations are causing false confessions, will go a long way in ensuring the reduction of misclassification and coercion occurring.

The 5 Five Red Flags of a False Confession

Once a confession has been made, sifting through hundreds of claims of innocence is a daunting task that innocence organizations the world over deal with each day. In order to assist with the deluge, The Innocence Project has five red flags they look for in determining a false confession:

  1. No new evidence presented: The confession provides nothing the investigators didn't already know from some other source
  2. No physical evidence tying the suspects to the crime
  3. Confessions coming from juvenile suspects without representation
  4. Statements of Physical Abuse from the suspects
  5. False Fed Facts

If you would like to help make a difference in another’s life consider donating or reaching out to these organizations below:

Bluhm Legal Clinic, Center on Wrongful Convictions — Chicago, US

The Griffith University Innocence Project — Queensland, Australia

Innocence Project — US

Innocence Project London — Greenwich, UK

Works Cited

Alexander, M. (2012) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Bedau, H. A., & Radelet, M. L. (1987). Miscarriages of justice in potentially capital cases. Stanford Law Review, 40,21–179.

Blank, J., & Jensen, E. (2006). The Exonerated. Faber & Faber.

Drizin, A. S., Leo, A. R. (2012). The Three Errors: Pathways to False Confession and Wrongful Conviction. University of San Francisco Law Research Paper. 4

Lykken, D. (1998). Tremor in the blood; Uses and abuses of the lie detector. New York: Plenum.

Meissner, C. A., & Kassin, S.M. (2002). “He’s guilty!”: Investigator bias in judgments of truth and deception. Law & Human Behaviour. 26, 469–480.

Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2007). ·Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. New York: Harcourt.

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