Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 23, 2012

‘I Confess!’ Why Do People Admit to Things They Haven’t Done?

By David K. Shipler
(Published in the New York Times Sunday Review of Feb. 26, 2012, online Feb. 23)

Several months after Antonio Ramirez was shot seven times in Oakland, Calif., the police picked up a frightened 16-year-old named Felix, isolated him in an interrogation room late at night without a lawyer, rejected his pleas to see his mother, and harangued him until he began to tell them what he thought they wanted to hear.

They wanted a diagram of the crime scene, he later told his court-appointed lawyer, Richard Foxall, but whatever he drew was so inaccurate that the police never produced it. When he described escaping in one direction after the killing, they corrected him, because they knew from witnesses that the shooter had gone the opposite way. When he didn’t mention an alley nearby, they told him about it, and he incorporated it into his statement. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” said one officer, as Felix recalled to his lawyer.

So, they demanded, where was the gun? Felix denied having a gun. “That’s when they really got out of control and started yelling at him,” Mr. Foxall said. “He started to feel personally threatened.” Slyly, he made up something demonstrably untrue: that he had left the gun with his grandfather. “I thought this was brilliant,” his lawyer said, because it discredited the tale he was concocting. “He doesn’t have a grandfather. Both grandfathers are dead.”

Once the police had badgered a rough murder confession from Felix, they taped it. Yet the confession lacked a critical detail — one that officers neglected to feed to him. Felix learned it three days later in court when he was handed the charge sheet and saw the date of the crime. He stared at the document and realized that he had the perfect alibi: On the day that Antonio Ramirez was gunned down, Felix had been locked up in a juvenile detention facility for violating probation in a case of theft.

The murder charge was dropped, of course, and Mr. Foxall was greatly relieved. “I would have hated to have had to try the case,” he said. “It would have been very scary. Juries don’t want to believe that somebody will confess to a crime he didn’t commit.” Judges don’t want to believe this either. In fact, according to Mr. Foxall, the juvenile commissioner in Felix’s case said, “Well, I don’t understand — why would he confess?”

If you have never been tortured, or locked up and verbally threatened, you may find it hard to believe that anyone would confess to something he had not done. Intuition holds that the innocent do not make false confessions. What on earth could be the motive? To stop the abuse? To curry favor with the interrogator? To follow some fragile thread of imaginary hope that cooperation will bring freedom?

Yes, all of the above. Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill or mentally retarded, and suspects high on drugs or drunk on liquor. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they just go along with the interrogator. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated.

False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Considering that DNA is available in just a fraction of all crimes, a much larger universe of erroneous convictions surely exists. If nearly a quarter of overturned convictions involves a false confession, police interrogations are creating an epidemic of injustice.

Officers are taught to use all the tricks and lies that courts permit within the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s shield against self-incrimination. John E. Reid & Associates, which has trained thousands of interrogators, suggests that a suspect be induced to waive his constitutional rights to silence and counsel by giving him the famous Miranda warning “casually” and not immediately after arrest when he is “defensive and guarded” and “more likely to invoke his rights.” When a skilled questioner splices it nonchalantly into conversation, the warning’s empowering message of choice can be lost on a suspect. Many false confessors have been routinely Mirandized in this perfunctory manner.

To get people talking, the Reid training also recommends questions that imply leniency without making explicit promises and that reduce moral responsibility by blaming peer pressure: “Was this your idea or did your buddies talk you into it?” Interrogators are advised to pretend to have evidence but not to fabricate it. A suspect can be shown a card bearing a latent fingerprint and be told: “This is your fingerprint. We found it inside that stolen car.” That’s been allowed by courts if the police officer puts his or her own print on the card but not if the officer fakes it with the suspect’s print. Admissions produced by these tactics may be true or untrue.

A cunning lie generated a false confession from Martin Tankleff, 17, who found his parents one morning in their Long Island home slashed and stabbed, his mother dead, his father barely alive. The boy called 911 and was taken for questioning. Getting nowhere, Detective K. James McCready decided on a trick. He walked to an adjacent room within hearing distance, dialed an extension on the next desk, picked up the phone and faked a conversation with an imaginary officer at the hospital. He went back to the son and told him that his father had come out of his coma and said, “Marty, you did it.” In fact, Seymour Tankleff never regained consciousness and died a month later.

In experiments and in interrogation rooms, adults who are told convincing fictions have become susceptible to memories of things that never happened. Rejecting their own recollections through what psychologists call “memory distrust syndrome,” they are tricked by phony evidence into accepting their own fabrications of guilt — an “internalized false confession.”

That is what happened to a shaken Martin Tankleff, and although he quickly recanted, as if coming out of a spell, he was convicted and drew 50 years to life. He spent 17 years in prison before winning an appeal based on new evidence that pointed to three ex-convicts. But they have never been tried. The killers of the Tankleffs remain at large, as do other criminals who have been spared by the clever police interrogations that imprison innocents.

There are possible remedies. After Felix’s false confession, the Oakland Police Department began video recording “as soon as a homicide suspect enters the interview room, as opposed to only taping a portion of the interview,” said Sgt. Chris Bolton, the police chief of staff. Some lawyers worry nonetheless that judges won’t watch hours of subtle coercion, and that jurors will still find the taped confession decisive.

The police could be prohibited from lying about nonexistent evidence; from inducing a suspect to imagine leniency; from questioning minors without a parent or a lawyer present. They could be required to corroborate a confession with stringent evidence.

Finally, post-conviction challenges of confessions could be assigned to judges and prosecutors other than those who tried the original cases. The natural unwillingness to admit a grave error should not have to be overcome for justice to be done.

Adapted from Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America, by David K. Shipler


  1. Dear David:

    I read with interest your article in today's "New York Times" called "Why Do Innocent People Confess?" Decades ago,you and I were on a New Israel Fund tour of Israel.

    I have sent your article to various friends I thought would find it of interest: a Sarasota lawyer who teaches and practices criminal law and was formerly in the Public Defender's Office, people at the Cornell and Yale Law Schools, the staff of the Innocence Project of Florida, and the dean of the School of Human Ecology at my alma mater, Cornell University. They have recently started a new program there, resulting in combined JD/Ph.D. degrees that will include a course on the reliability of witness testimony.



    Sonia Pressman Fuentes

  2. Several years ago before I was diagnosed with a serious illness, I was called by my then wife who had worked her 4 hour shift at a local office. She was "exhausted" from the "grueling afternoon". Being in extreme pain I had had 2 drinks with my pain medication, weighing only about 140 lbs at the time. When I got lost the police approached my legally parked car in a rest area and asked if I had a problem. Responding "No, thank you, I am looking for a restaurant to meet my wife. One of the young officers said he smelled alcohol--I had drunk about 3oz of rum with 2 cokes 2 hours earlier. My breathalyzer read 0.09, which I thought was OK only to be informed that 0.08 was the legal limit. I was thrown to the ground, roughly put into the back seat and driven to the jail and put in a cell after blood was drawn (subsequently coming back at 0.07, under the legal limit). I was taken into a small, dank, smelly room and browbeat into confessing my "heavy drinking" and "probably drug dealing". Being a physician and still dress in an appropriate suit and tie, I asked for my attorney or to call my wife, which was denied. Six hours rapidly passed with me refusing to talk, incurring the wrath of each succeeding officer. Although not physically assaulted again, I was threatened (the tape recorder each time carefully turned off). When I was released the next morning with no explanation, apology or anything I subsequently found out that I was officially not "drunk" by the more reliable blood test. Although I in no way justify my drinking with my pain meds and driving, I remembered how many times I had written off my professional fee for law enforcement officers over the course of my career out of respect for their "service".
    About a week later I received a phone call from the county DA asking me not to sue the county, the jail, or the officer who had assaulted me. I did not against my attorney's strong disapproval. I no longer discount or waive my fee for law enforcement personnel or lawyers. Having never had so much as a speeding ticket for over a decade I could not believe the treatment that I had received. The physical assault was caught on the police cruiser camera, prompting the DA's call to me.
    I could have gone home that night by taxi, had I agreed to sign a form indicating my guilt, incredibly including drug dealing (although I had never done drugs, nor were any drugs found in my car). They assumed I was a dealer because of the toxicoloy that revealed my prescription pain medicaion. I can only too well imagine what you write about the innocent confessing to make their immediate 'Hell' go away and think about the rest later.
    Incidentally the jailer was arrested about 21/2 years later for soliciting sexual favors in exchange for better treatment for the female inmates. He had to be put in segregated cell for his own protection when he finally reported to jail.