Individuals with Disabilities and the Issue of False Confessions - Part IV

Posted by Chris Morales on Wed, Oct 16, 2013 @ 07:50 AM

Repetition of Questions

Another language coercive strategy used by police detectives during interrogation is to repeat questions. Researchers who worked with child abuse victims with low intellectual functioning show that when children were repeatedly asked questions about events, the young suspects would change their responses 40 percent of the time.

Based on the research, four suggestions are presented to counter these psychological, physical, and linguistic coercive techniques by police and detectives: (1) courts should adopt mandatory electronic video recording requirements in felony cases; (2) a forensic linguistic analysis should be made of police interrogations in order to look for coercive questioning, controlling conversation devices, and use of “tricky” ambiguous language; (3) the admissibility of confession evidence should be allowed only when the accused subject’s guilt is corroborated by independent evidence, especially when vulnerable populations are involved; and (4) all confessions should meet a reasonable standard of reliability before being admitted.

DeClue further elaborates and says that psychologists in false confession cases can be valuable experts. Forensic linguists can also be helpful in analyzing cases of false confessions because of the use and misuse of language by police during the interrogative process.

An actual confession is the ideal solution in a criminal case. However, false confession are the antithesis. Available evidence suggests they are not as rare as one might think. For example, several years ago when he was governor of Illinois, George Ryan commuted the sentences of 150 death row inmates to life in prison, in part due to concern about false confessions in their cases.

In another example of false confessions, a county in Illinois found 247 instances in which defendants’ self incriminating statements were thrown out by the court or found to be insufficiently convincing for a jury.

Suspects with low IQs are especially vulnerable to police interrogations and false confession because they are less likely to understand the charges or the consequences of confessing. Other such suspects likely to make false confessions are those with compliant or suggestible personalities. Individuals who are deaf are especially susceptible to offering false confessions. When they fail to understand what is asked of them, they often accede to what they do not understand, especially when confronted by a person in authority.

Regarding confessions, everyone has a breaking point, but it is unlikely to occur within the first hour of interrogation. Sometimes false statements are made by law enforcement officers. “Your fingerprints were on the gun. We have pictures of you doing it” The use of false evidence sometimes causes false confessions.

Children, the mentally handicapped, and those who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol are also often susceptible to giving false confessions. Interestingly, when Charles Lindberg’s child was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, two hundred innocent people confessed.
Since DNA evidence has become available and, in some cases, can be used to conclusively prove guilt or innocence, it is often helpful in false confession situations. Based on records compiled by Professor Brandon Garret of the University of Virginia Law School, since 1976 at least 40 persons have given confessions that were later proved false by DNA evidence. None of these were from persons who were mentally impaired, mentally ill or very young, the groups usually thought to be most vulnerable to false confession.

One thing that surprised Professor Garret was the complexity of the false confessions. He thought, as most would that they would be flimsy instead they appeared uncannily reliable.

Often during interrogations police will introduce and describe elements of the crime, either purposely or otherwise the crime, either purposely or otherwise in order to contaminate the defendant’s testimony. To Dr. Garret’s surprise, he found in almost all his cases that the suspects’ confession had been contaminated. He also noted that most of the defendants who falsely confessed had also been subjected to lengthy high pressure interrogations without legal counsel present.

How many false confessions exist in cases in which no DNA exists to disprove them? Steven Drizen, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University says, “Contamination is the primary factor in wrongful convictions.” To remedy this situation, police training experts advocate the videotaping of interrogations. Some states require videotaping when suspects are questioned, especially in death penalty cases. Video recording is always necessary when sign language is involved.

Confession evidence is a prosecutor’s most potent weapon. It is also a source of recurring legal controversy. Questions arise such as: Was the defendant’s confession voluntary or coerced? Was the suspect intellectually competent and of sound mind? Was the suspect fearful, tired, or in a state of heightened suggestibility? These questions illustrate some of the many complex, often subjective, issues involved in confession evidence and the kinds of decisions judges and juries have to make in cases involving confessions.

In an effort to help assure justice in court decision involving confessions, model legislation has been developed. Usually a confession is excluded if it was elicited by brute force, prolonged isolation, deprivation of food or sleep, threats of harm or punishment, or promises of immunity or leniency.

Today it is a rare when police grill suspects for 24 hours at a time, shine bright lights on the, or beat them with rubber hoses. However, they now have sophisticated psychologically oriented techniques such as feigned sympathy and friendship, appeals to God and religion, use of informants, the presentation of false evidence and other form of trickery and deception using linguistic devices to control the conversation. Books are even available that instruct police in the use of such techniques. One self published book by Lt. Albert Joseph Jr. was published in 1995 and is titled We Get Confessions: The book& Seminars for Law Enforcement Only! Another book is titled, Interrogation Techniques and Tricks to Secure Evidence. It was written by an anonymous author and was published by Paladin Press in Boulder, Colo., in 1991.
False confessions are far more frequent than would be expected. Although it is impossible to determine the exact number of false confessions that occur nationally, there are many such case reported in the literature. In a New York rape case in 1989, five men confessed to the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park. Their cases were reversed after an imprison rapist took sole responsibility for the assault.

Highly publicized crimes in particular often generate large numbers of false confessions. Henry Lucas, a notorious serial murderer, voluntarily confessed to several hundred other confessions. Henry Lucas, a notorious serial murdered, voluntarily confessed several hundred other murders, but authorities felt many of the confession were false. Saul Kassinjo, a psychology professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, believes many of these types of confessions are actually the result of pathological need for attention.

There are many other reasons for false confessions. Sometimes defendants are tricked by police interrogation tactics. Others may take the rap for friends. Still others simply relent under intense questioning and agree to anything that will end the ordeal.

What is the most common explanation suspects give for making false confessions? “I just wanted to go home.” This explanation reflects two facts: One, the defendant often does not fully realize the implications of confession. Secondly, police often encourage such confessions by saying the defendant will be rewarded for his confession by a lighter sentence. In addition, police will sometimes imply the crime was unintentional or that the suspect was provoked into doing it.

It is important to note that in recent years defense attorney shave increasingly sought to introduce the possibility that a confession was either falsely volunteered, coerced, or both. To do this, they are citing the work of confession experts. This has led to intense court battles over whether or not such testimony should be admitted in court.

According to law professors Lawrence Solan and Peter Tiersma, judges need to evaluate the reliability of confessions before admitting them into evidence when the reliability or truthfulness of the confession is raised by one of the parties. The professors point out that voluntariness is only part of the equation. Confessions should be closely scrutinized, especially if vulnerable suspects made them. Given that juries give tremendous weight to confessions, it is the judge’s responsibility to decide if the confession should be admitted into evidence or not. Because reliability is the important factor in this decision, judges should discard such evidence if there is substantial doubt that the confession is truthful.

No data exists specifically concerning deaf defendants and false convictions. However, they are a definite possibility. However, they are a defendants because of the unique stresses dead defendants face. Sometimes they are interrogated without a sign language interpreter present, or they have one who is neither competent nor certified to do legal interpreting. These situation can lead to a multitude of misunderstandings, confusion, and ultimately, to false confessions. This is especially true when deaf suspects must deal with aggressive, intimidating interrogators.

Because of the fear and confusion most deaf defendants experience when arrested and interrogated, they would be far more likely to make a false confession than a hearing suspect.


When apprehended by police and take into custody, vulnerable populations, including people who are deaf, are at risk for not understanding their Miranda Rights. Vulnerable populations are also highly susceptible to making false confessions because of their disabilities, youth, and personalities characteristics. Furthermore, police officers may use coercive conversational and questioning devices, make false promises or threats, or use indirect or equivocal language in order to elicit a false confession. Procedures must be adopted, such as mandatory video recording of interrogation, to ensure that vulnerable populations obtain their constitutional rights.

The Morales Law Firm would like to thank The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Champion for sharing this article with us.

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Tags: trial, defendants, criminal, false confession, Miranda Waiver