Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Coerced False Confessions During Police Interrogations

Forcing the Issue

Confessions are extremely persuasive evidence of guilt that can often make or break a criminal case. Once a confession is given, it is difficult to retract. Consequently, an admission of guilt can ultimately lead to substantial fines, imprisonment and even execution. It's difficult for most people to imagine why someone would risk such consequences and confess to committing a crime they know for certain they didn't do. However, it happens more frequently then you  might think. Techniques utilized by inexperienced or unscrupulous police interrogators, such as deception, fear tactics, long interviews, sleep or food deprivation, and exaggerating or minimizing the crime, are blamed  for a majority of all documented false confessions.

Fear tactics such as direct threats, intimidation or actual physical abuse, have been used to coerce suspects into falsely admitting guilt to a crime. Such confessions are referred to as coerced-compliant confessions, Richard Conti suggested in a 1999 article. One example of a coerced-compliant confession occurred in March 1983, following the murder of a woman from Pulaski County, Arkansas. Not long after the woman's murder, the police took into custody Barry Lee Fairchild, a young, mentally handicapped black man.

Barry Lee Fairchild
Barry Lee Fairchild

Fairchild's lawyers said that while in custody, police interrogators forced their client to confess to the crime after they allegedly placed telephone books on his head and hit the books with blackjacks, Richard Lacayo reported in a 1991 Time article. Lacayo quoted Fairchild's lawyer Steven Hawkins, who claimed that the torturous method was likely used because it "leaves no marks but causes excruciating pain." Fairchild was found guilty and executed for the murder in 1995, even though he continued to profess his innocence to the end. American Bar Association reporter Mark Hansen suggested in an article that two area sheriffs later admitted that "beatings were a common interrogation tactic at the time of Fairchild's arrest."

Physical abuse is undoubtedly one of the most barbaric methods used to obtain a confession and is strictly illegal. But other successful techniques, such as the use of deception, trickery and other similar psychological tactics, are deemed more acceptable. John Painter Jr. quoted a commonly used police textbook titled "Criminal Interrogation and Confessions" by Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, and Joseph P. Buckley, which states that the use of such tactics is "not only helpful but frequently indispensable in order to secure incriminating information from the guilty, or to obtain investigative leads from otherwise uncooperative witnesses or informants." 

Ralph Underwager & Hollinda Wakefield
Ralph Underwager & Hollinda Wakefield

One deceptive technique referred to as "maximization" can include "exaggerating the evidence available, telling the person that the interrogator knows he is guilty or stressing the consequences" of the crime, Hollinda Wakefield and Ralph Underwager stated in a 1998 article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law. The commonly used maximization method, such as falsely telling suspects they have fingerprints linking them to the crime, or that they failed a lie-detector test or an acquaintance of the suspect witnessed them committing the crime, can lead to false confessions. This occurs mostly in highly suggestible and confused suspects who actually begin to believe that they are guilty of the crime they didn't commit, which is known as coerced internalization.

Professor Saul Kassin
Professor Saul Kassin

During the interrogation process, interviewers can also use "minimization," whereby the seriousness of the crime is downplayed and the suspect believes that they are less likely to get in trouble. This method can prompt a false confession, especially if it is coupled with other coercive techniques. Professor of Psychology Saul Kassin gave an example in a 2002 Talk of the Nation interview with Neal Conan, saying that the interviewing detective might say "You know, I think you're a really good person. I don't think you intended to do the harm that occurred in this case. Maybe it was an accident... maybe you were provoked... under the influence of some drug...". The suspect may feel psychological pressure to satisfy the interrogator, especially if they admire or fear them, or they may even believe what they are being told and thus falsely confess to the crime.

Another method used to get suspects to confess is to make them sit through long, drawn-out interrogations, which sometimes last more than hours. The suspect often goes without sleep and/or food, and gets so worn down emotionally and physically that he is more likely to give false statements in an attempt to end the torture. During such confessions, the police may "feed suspects bits of information, which are incorporated into a confession," Dara Purvis reported in a 2002 University Wire Daily Trojan article. Like physical torture, extended interrogations that are accompanied by sleep and food deprivation are undoubtedly unethical and purely inhumane. Unfortunately, these types of interrogations are not uncommon.


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