I took an art class in 7th grade. I had no interest in drawing fruit bowls or a table and chair and gave these earlier assignments mediocre effort at best. But, toward the end of our first semester, we had to draw a picture of something that reminded us of the annual Peanut Festival, our once-a-year county fair. And I found the perfect subject; the Peanut Festival queen. 

I came across her picture in the local paper and was absolutely fascinated by her – the crown on her head, the regal way she held herself, the dazzling smile. If only I looked like that. I spent hours and hours on that drawing, shading and erasing and shading again. My mom was alternately amused at my dedication and somewhat impressed by how good it turned out. I was so proud the day I turned it in.

A few days later, my art teacher asked me to stop by after school. She handed me my drawing, which had a big fat F in bright red. She then told me she was absolutely certain that I had cheated by somehow tracing the drawing onto my paper and that she would not accept a drawing that was not mine. I was absolutely flabbergasted; as the daughter and granddaughter of a teacher, the possibility of cheating would never even have occurred to me. 

What I remember the most was the absolute sense of helplessness. No matter what I said, she refused to believe that I could be innocent. Pretty soon, I gave up and remained silent no matter what she said. While I don’t know what it’s like to experience a police investigation, I do know what it’s like to be falsely accused of something. And how easy it can be to stop protesting your innocence when someone in authority believes it.

Confessions of Innocence

Contrary to common sense, people who are innocent do confess to things they didn’t do. According to the Innocence Project, about 1 out of 4 of their cases later proven innocent falsely confessed at the time of the crime. In most cases, new DNA technology exonerated the false confessor. 

In others, authorities discovered the crime never happened (for example, when a missing person reappears) or it came to light that it was physically impossible for the confessor to have committed the crime (as when the suspect was already in custody or too young to have produced semen). In some cases, the true perpetrator was apprehended and his guilt clearly established or, most rarely, the true perpetrator came forward on his own. But in every case, the convicted person was innocent but, at some point, said he was not.

Who Confesses to a Crime He Didn’t Commit?

Most guilty people never confess to a crime, so why would an innocent person? Some take the rap to protect someone they love. A few do it to get attention, or convince themselves that they really are guilty. The majority of false confessions, however, happen during a perfect storm of vulnerable defendants and coercive interrogation strategies.  

For example, the risk of undue influence during interrogation is higher among adolescents, individuals with compliant or suggestible personalities, and those with intellectual impairments or diagnosed psychological disorders. Not surprisingly, we know that people who are tortured are more likely to confess; in fact, torture someone long enough and hard enough and he will confess to being the second shooter in the Kennedy assassination. 

Another interrogation strategy likely to encourage a confession – real or false – is the false evidence bluff. In this case, the accused is lied to and told that the investigators already have solid evidence linking the suspect to the crime. So, for instance, if you have two partners in crime, each may be told that the other person has already ratted him out to save his own skin. The hope being that each party will be incensed by the alleged betrayal of the other person and give up the goods for real. 

Some Words Never Die

We can believe that an eye witness could make a mistake. We can believe that a defendant could forget or misremember an important detail. But we typically do not believe that someone who knows he is innocent will confess to a crime he did not commit. As a result, it’s almost impossible for a defendant to recover from a false confession; it trumps just about any other evidence.

Jury research shows just how powerful a false confession is in the deliberation room. Even when mock jurors know a confession was obtained through abusive or harsh tactics, even when they say it did not play a part in their guilty verdict, they are more likely to convict.

Here’s an example of the power of a false confession. In two studies, mock jurors read about fictitious defendants who were accused of murder and terrorist activities. The mock jurors were given the same supporting evidence but the statements the defendant allegedly made during a police interview were manipulated among different groups of jurors; in some cases, the defendant lied, in some cases, he confessed, and in some, he told the truth. The various groups of pretend jurors then deliberated, gave a verdict, and answered questions about how much weight they gave to what evidence. 

Defendants who had lied or confessed to police were more likely to be convicted than those who told the truth. However, jurors who had to judge a lying defendant tended to rely on the presence or absence of supporting evidence to render their verdict; in other words, the lies were one strike against the defendant but were weighed against the other facts in the case. However, when the defendant confessed, mock jurors tended to vote guilty no matter what the supporting evidence suggested. 

In real life, people don’t do much better. In cases where judges rule that a confession was not voluntary by law, they still use it as a basis for conviction. A study of 125 cases of innocent confessors found that, among those who pled not guilty and went to trial, jurors convicted 80% of them. False confessions are so powerful because they fly in the face of common sense. But doesn’t believing a statement made under duress over DNA evidence also seem illogical? 

Luckily for me, my mom (whose motto before this was “the teacher is always right”) had witnessed my diligent work and came to my defense. But others aren’t so lucky. 

We might think the right choice between confessing to a crime we didn’t commit and trusting a jury to uncover the truth is obvious, but it’s more complicated than that, especially when we’re psychologically vulnerable or there’s no one who has our back. As MIT engineer Stuart Chase pointed out, “Common sense is also what tells us the earth is flat.”