Study highlights potential for false confessions in Massachusetts cases

Research suggests that people can generate and honestly believe false memories of personal criminal activity, which could be a factor in false confessions.

When most people in Natick think about leading causes of wrongful convictions, they may think of eyewitness errors and forensic evidence issues. Many people overlook the role that false confessions can play in these convictions. Surprisingly, according to the Innocence Project, over one in four known wrongful convictions have involved false confessions.

To many people, including jurors, the thought of confessing to a serious crime such as sexual assault or murder despite being innocent may be difficult to understand. However, many factors that impair judgment and reasoning, including fatigue or intoxication, are known to contribute to these confessions. Additionally, one study suggests that aggressive interrogation tactics may even cause people to start incorrectly believing they are actually guilty.

False memory formation

According to The Toronto Star, during this study, researchers interviewed 70 college students about their adolescent memories. During three 40-minute interviews, the researchers questioned the participants about two events that had occurred in the past. One was an emotionally memorable event. The researchers spoke beforehand to each participant's caretakers to collect accurate details about that event. The second event was a fictional crime, but the researchers told the students it was real.

The researchers referred to the second event in vague terms. They stated that it involved assault or brought the participant into contact with law enforcement authorities. They assured each participant that the memory was real and that it would return eventually. The researchers also encouraged the participants to visualize the incident or imagine how they would have felt during it. Disturbingly, by the end of three sessions, the researchers had produced the following results:

  • Over 70 percent of the participants were convinced that, sometime within the past five years, they had committed crimes.
  • Although the researchers did not provide any details, these participants all developed detailed and emotionally charged memories of their imaginary crimes.
  • After researchers explained that the memories were not real, some participants still insisted that they had truly committed crimes.

The possibility that people may form similarly convincing false memories in response to criminal accusations is alarming. It's important to note that authorities may use much more aggressive tactics than these researchers did. Additionally, people facing custodial interrogations are often more emotionally distressed, exhausted or confused than the students likely were. All of these factors could raise the risk of innocent people giving false confessions based on untrue memories.

Proper interrogation procedures

In Massachusetts, authorities are encouraged to record all custodial interrogations. However, an unrecorded confession can still be admissible in court. Defendants may request that the jury be advised that the confession was not recorded and therefore should be assessed critically and cautiously. This may reduce the risk of a conviction based on a false confession, but it may not ensure that every wrongful conviction is prevented.

Considering the grave consequences that false confessions can have, anyone who has been arrested and accused of a crime should consider speaking immediately with an attorney. An attorney may be able to help a person understand his or her rights and identify alternatives to giving any kind of confession.

Keywords: Study, students, confessions, sexual assault, murder