Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why do people confess to crimes they didn't commit?

In a discussion of whether Dostoevky deserves to be considered a great writer, the blogger Jim H wrote:

does anyone really believe that Raskolnikov would cop so readily to the murder? Was he that weak? Was his conscience so overwhelming? or was this just a way for D. to end the story in a redeeming, sort of uplifting way he couldn't find it in himself to challenge?

Hm.... the question is a reminder that most people don't understand how easily people confess. Most people are surprised to learn how common is the phenomena of false confessions.

I just lectured on this in today's psychology class and can't get the topic off my mind.

I found I was unusually strident because my undergrads were staring at me with looks of disbelief and incomprehension.

One student said, "Because they want to protect their family?"

Silently... uh... no, that was Stalinist Russia.

The evidence that people confess to crimes they don't commit, and the reasons, were recently laid out by Saul Kassin (journal article, blog report), publication list).

Dear young things, only two in a class of 85 (yes, big classes sucks) indicated that they had heard of the "Central Park Jogger" -- the young female stock broker assaulted and left for dead in 1989. Media hysteria over teens going on "wilding" rampages meant that the usual suspects were rounded up and convicted. Five young black men spent the 1990s in jail and were finally released in 2002 when the real rapist, already in prison for another crime, bragged about the assault to an imate and was found to have been the rapist via DNA evidence.

They confessed because they cracked under the relentless pressure and just wanted the harassment to end.

It doesn't sound plausible, does it -- until you start looking at the data.

About 1/4 of DNA exonerations were for death-row inmates who were on death-row because of false confessions; once you make a confession, its not easily retracted.

Readers, what is the solution to the waste of lives mispent in jail and wrong convictions?

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