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The Realities Behind False Confessions

People can be pressured by the police into falsely confessing to crimes, and “The Crucible” demonstrates how this happens.

1876 illustration of the Salem witch trials. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Out of the 375 DNA exonerations in the United States, 29% of these wrongful convictions were due to false confessions.

After reading The Crucible, I find it fitting that I came across a video from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, in which he talks about police interrogations in the U.S. and how the police can use different tactics to force people into giving confessions to crimes they did not commit. Around two minutes into the video, he says this:

“It can be very hard to comprehend how someone could confess to something they didn’t do… The truth is, there are a number of reasons an innocent person might confess to something they didn’t do.”

A play by American playwright Arthur Miller, The Crucible touches upon many themes that are still prevalent in today’s world, and it can help us answer this one question…

Why Would An Innocent Person Give A False Confession?

The Crucible was written in 1953, and the play portrays a fictionalized story of the Salem witch trials, which took place in Massachusetts from February 1692 until May 1693. In the play, a group of young women make false accusations of people practicing witchcraft and put them on trial for it. This led to the hanging of 19 villagers.

Although the claims of people being involved in witchcraft are not true, the rumors have spread throughout Salem, and the town has been overtaken with hysteria. Some people use this to their own advantage.

Abigail Williams, for instance, was a servant for John and Elizabeth Proctor. Because she previously had an affair with John, Abigail was fired by Elizabeth. However, we see in the play that she still has feelings for John and wants to marry him. Abigail’s jealousy motivates her to lie and deploy her own plot to have Elizabeth arrested for witchcraft.

Hesitant at first, John goes to the trial to expose Abigail’s fabrications and save his wife from imprisonment. In order to prove her motives, he even sacrifices his own reputation by disclosing their affair to the court. Not aware of this, Elizabeth was brought in and asked if her husband has “committed the crime of lechery” (Miller 67). To protect her husband’s name, she responds with, “No” (68).

Mary Warren—the Proctors’ current servant—knows that Elizabeth is innocent, and she had agreed to help John and reveal the truth to the court. When Abigail pretends to see spirits that she claims Mary is sending to attack them, she convinces (almost) everyone in the room that it’s real. As Mary begins to panic in fear of Abigail’s accusations—and even becomes a bit hysterical—she ends up putting the blame onto and accusing John of being “the Devil’s man” (70). Because of this, John is also put in jail and executed in the end.

John is willing to give up his life and sticks to what he believes is the morally right thing to do—not admitting to Mary’s false accusations towards him. He doesn’t want to contribute to the hysteria by feeding into the web of lies that has been wreaking havoc in Salem.

But not everyone has as much integrity as John. Many of those who are arrested still do end up confessing. Why is this?

Being Faced With Stressful Circumstances

The accused suspects know that if they confess, then their lives will be saved and they only have to serve some time in jail. But for those who don’t confess—they will face execution.

In this way, if they want to live, they have no other option but to admit to the false accusations.

And whatever the judge and the court deem to be true, no one can oppose it. In this Puritan town, everyone is required to follow the social norm and abide by the rule of God. Even if there’s a slight suspicion that you are defying against the orders in society, then you will be condemned and seen as one who belongs to the devil. During the trial, Judge Danforth says:

“A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it; there be no road between” (55).

If anyone tries to defend themselves, they will just be perceived as one who is disrespecting and going against the court. Since the judge is so preoccupied by his theological beliefs, he becomes susceptible to the lies and hysteria—believing that there is witchcraft when, in reality, no one is practicing it.

There is no good outcome from this. With Judge Danforth adamant about getting a confession from those who he is convinced are guilty, the accused are left with no choice but to either confess to something they didn’t do—or be killed.

And this happens nowadays, as well. During interrogations, the police often go into it with the intention of forcing a confession out of the suspect—even if there’s a chance they may be innocent. The police use manipulative tactics, such as lying about possible leniency if they do admit to the crime.

Imagine the amount of pressure an innocent person must be facing when being accused of breaking the law—with their lives on the line, they are bound to feel helpless and will want to do anything to get themselves out of this unjust situation. And under such emotional and mental distress, I think it’s fair to say that their reasoning and willpower are likely to be compromised.

After hours of extremely stressful probing, the suspect will often cave and confess just to end the interrogation. This is what leads to many false confessions.

One such case is that of Melissa Lucio, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. Her death was due to injuries suffered after accidentally falling down a flight of stairs, but Melissa was coerced into giving the police a false confession after more than 5 hours of aggressive interrogation while maintaining her innocence. There is no evidence that proves Melissa committed a crime.

Melissa Lucio was given the death penalty, and she is scheduled to be executed on April 27th, 2022. You can learn more about her story and how you can help, as well as sign the petition to stop her execution:

Lies Can Make One Question Their Reality

Not only is there immense pressure on the suspect—who are often left with very limited options—there are also instances when the person under interrogation will start to question their own reality.

In The Crucible, Mary knows that the accusations of witchcraft are not true. She knows that the girls are lying. But due to the rumors floating around Salem, Abigail is able to evoke even more hysteria from Mary and convince her of the devil’s presence. In fact, the lies that Abigail and the other young girls are perpetuating has caused such panic among the people that many refuse to believe otherwise.

When everyone else around continues to claim that something is the truth, it’s easy for one to start believing in it as well.

On the Innocence Project’s website, it states that “it is almost always legal for police to lie during interrogations.” This means that police are able to lie about certain evidence. If the suspect thinks that the police is telling the truth, then they can begin to doubt their own perception and memory of what actually happened. Along with the stressful environment, it’s not that difficult for the suspect to be manipulated into thinking that they committed a crime, even when they did not.

The Absence Of A Lawyer

Judge Danforth gives a speech when Reverend Hale suggests for a lawyer to be present:

“…Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims — and they do testify, the children certainly do testify. As for the witches, none will deny that we are most eager for their confessions. Therefore, what is left for a lawyer to bring out?” (59)

Danforth tries to persuade the court that the truth will emerge for itself and that a lawyer is not necessary—but of course, we know that those who have testified are not actually telling the truth.

A lawyer would bring reason to the trial. In a courtroom filled with hysterical and obstinate beliefs in the accusations of witchcraft, any logic and evidence presented will likely be ignored.

Besides, Danforth doesn’t want to change his mind. He believes that his judgement are always accurate, and that it would be wrong for a dependable judge to shift their opinions. He wants the supposed “witches” to confess because it is the only way to support his judgement. And since he believes that those who are guilty will not always admit to their guilt, he puts his full trust in the “victims’” testimonies. He states that “the law and Bible damn all liars, and bearers of false witness” (61)—so he expects the “victims” to tell the truth.

As a result, he is stuck with the idea that those accused must be guilty of witchcraft because there are “victims” who have testified.

A lot of people are not aware of their Miranda rights during police questioning—the right to remain silent, as well as the right for a lawyer to be present. Though one can expressly waive their rights, it can also be done implicitly. According to Dallas Defense Lawyers Broden & Mickelsen, this is what can indicate that one has implicitly waived their Miranda rights:

“Assume the police tell the person their Miranda rights, reciting everything accurately and properly. Then, after hearing their rights, the person sits down with the police and starts talking about the incident that led to their arrest. They answer all of the officers’ questions and give information about the alleged crime.

“This is an implied waiver of their Miranda rights. They might not have stated outright that they waive their rights, but their behavior in speaking to the police and answering questions means they’re choosing not to have a lawyer present.”

This can lead to some issues, since the police can try to intimidate and mislead the suspect into waiving their rights, without them even realizing it. Once these rights are waived, they will not be able to have a lawyer present during interrogation.

Just like Judge Danforth in The Crucible, the police can impose their own presumptions onto the suspects.

Even for those who are innocent, a lawyer’s presence is important because any information you give to the police can be used against you in court. And some people may think that they don’t need a lawyer because they have done nothing wrong, but the police might consider you as a suspect and will try to coerce you into admitting to guilt.

John Oliver mentions this in his discussion about police interrogations:

“As soon as the police get a confession, thorough investigations tend to stop.”

To complete the investigation, the police will go to great lengths in order to get a confession out of their suspect. Having a lawyer present will protect you from such strategies and prevent your words from being deliberately misconstrued.

With all of these different factors—the already tense circumstances of facing serious allegations, a lack of ability to defend oneself, and the influential tactics used to affect one’s thinking—it makes a lot of sense why one may believe it’s in their best interest to falsely confess to a crime.

The Consequences Of False Confessions

Miller effectively demonstrates the causes of and conditions under which a false confession can occur. Although The Crucible was set near the end of the 1600s, the fundamentals of human psychology and behavior in such situations is still very much relevant today.

It is important to be aware of what goes on during interrogations and the strategies used to obtain confessions. If you were to be falsely accused of committing a crime, you need to understand what you are dealing with in order to approach it correctly and avoid confessing to a crime that you are not responsible for—because the consequence of a false confession can be a wrongful conviction.

There are many innocent people in prison right now, serving time for crimes they did not commit. You can learn more about these cases and ways which you can help by checking out the Innocence Project:

The police and the court of law need to focus on bringing justice for the people—and that will never be done if they continue prodding people into confessing to guilt when they are, in fact, not guilty.

The Crucible shows how 19 innocent people’s lives were lost, and more than 100 others incarcerated, because of the lies of a few selfish people, along with a deeply flawed justice system—and it is not much different in the real world today.

Works Cited:

Hello there! I’m A.X. — a theatre student who is sharing her thoughts about the plays she’s reading in theatre stuff. Interested in more? Here’s what I had to say about Mother Courage and Her Children (I’ve also linked resources for helping people in Ukraine and refugees impacted by the war, as well as organizations supporting those affected by other ongoing crises):

If you wish to read more about wrongful convictions, I discuss this topic in my article about the death penalty in the United States:

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A.X. Bates

A.X. Bates

Words can make a difference. Theatre student writing poems about life, society, and coffee. @axybates on Instagram and Twitter.