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A false confession is a form of legal testimony, an admission of guilt in a crime in which the confessor is not responsible for the crime. False confessions can be induced through coercion or by the mental disorder or incompetency of the accused. Even though false confessions might appear to be an exceptional and unlikely event, they occur on a regular basis in case law, which is one of the reasons why jurisprudence has established a series of rules to detect, and subsequently reject, false confessions. These are called the "confession rules." Plea agreements typically require the defendant to stipulate to a set of facts establishing he is guilty of the offense; in the United States federal system, before entering judgment on a guilty plea, the court must determine that there is a factual basis for the plea.[1]


False confessions can be categorized into three general types, as outlined by Saul M. Kassin in an article for Current Directions in Psychological Science[2]:

  • Voluntary false confessions are those that are given freely, without police prompting. Sometimes they may be sacrificial, to divert attention from the actual person who committed the crime. For instance, a parent might confess to save their child from jail. In some cases, people have falsely confessed to having committed notorious crimes simply for the attention that they receive from such a confession. Approximately 60 people are reported to have confessed to the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the "Black Dahlia."[3]
  • Compliant false confessions are given to escape a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. Interrogation techniques such as the Reid technique try to suggest to the suspect that he will experience a feeling of moral appeasement if he chooses to confess. Material rewards like coffee or the cessation of the interrogation are also used to the same effect. People may also confess to a crime they did not commit as a form of plea bargaining to avoid a harsher sentence. People who are easily coerced score high on the Gudjonsson suggestibility scale.
  • Internalized false confessions are those in which the person genuinely believes that they have committed the crime, as a result of highly suggestive interrogation techniques.

According to the Innocence Project, approximately 25% of convicted criminals ultimately exonerated had, in fact, confessed to the crime.[4] In Canada, courts of law have recognized as valid confessions that were acquired, even though the interrogators lied by suggesting they had substantial evidence against a given suspect when in fact they did not, something known as the “bluff” technique.[5] The high pressure generated may push innocent individuals to produce a confession.[6]

A 2010 study from CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice used laboratory experiments that test how the bluff technique correlates with confessions gained from innocent parties. Subjects were instructed to complete a task on a computer, then were falsely accused of a transgression such as crashing the computer or collaborating with a colleague to improve their task performance.[7] Bluff evidence, false evidence, and unreliable witnesses were used to test their effect. In the first test, 60% of the subjects confessed to the experimenter to pressing a computer key they had been instructed to avoid when, in fact, they had not; an additional 10% admitted to pressing the key to a study observer. A second group that tested subject reactions to charges of cheating produced nearly identical percentages of false confessions. The authors note that “innocent people who stand accused believe that their innocence will become apparent to others … which leads them to waive their Miranda right to silence and to an attorney.”[7]

False confessions greatly undermine the due process rights of the individual who has confessed. As Justice Brennan noted in his dissent in Colorado v. Connelly, 49 U.S. 157 (1986), "Our distrust for reliance on confessions is due, in part, to their decisive impact upon the adversarial process. Triers of fact accord confessions such heavy weight in their determinations that "the introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court superfluous, and the real trial, for all practical purposes, occurs when the confession is obtained." No other class of evidence is so profoundly prejudicial. 'Thus the decision to confess before trial amounts in effect to a waiver of the right to require the state at trial to meet its heavy burden of proof.'

Coerced false confessions have been used for directly political purposes. The systematic use of coerced confessions of political prisoners to extract public recantations for propaganda purposes has occurred in the twentieth (and twenty first) century in Stalin's Soviet Union, Maoist China, and most recently the Islamic Republic of Iran.[8]

Coerced false confessionsEdit

North AmericaEdit

Norfolk Four Edit

Main article: Norfolk Four

Derek Tice, Danial Williams, Joseph J. Dick Jr. and Eric C. Wilson are four of the five men convicted in the brutal rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in 1997 in Norfolk, Virginia. The convictions of the four were largely based on confessions, which they maintain were coerced. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project considers this a miscarriage of justice.[9] Moore-Bosko's parents, however, continue to believe that all those convicted were participants in the crime.[10] Tice, Williams and Dick either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of the murder, and were sentenced to one or more life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole. Wilson was convicted of rape and sentenced to 8½ years in prison. Three other men, Geoffrey A. Farris, John E. Danser and Richard D. Pauley, Jr., were also initially charged with the crime, but their charges were later dropped. The supporters of the Norfolk Four have offered evidence that purports to prove they are innocent, with no known involvement or connections to the incident.[11]

The fifth man, Omar Ballard, was also convicted in the crime, and was sentenced to 100 years in prison, 59 of which were suspended. He is the only man whose DNA matches that found at the scene, and his confession states that he committed the crime by himself, with none of the other men involved. Forensic evidence is consistent with his story that there were no other participants.

Brown v. Mississippi Edit

Main article: Brown v. Mississippi

In the United States, the 1936 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Mississippi established conclusively that confessions extracted through the use of physical brutality violate the Due Process Clause. In the case, three defendants had been sentenced to death for the murder of Raymond Stewart on March 30, 1934. The convictions had been based solely on confessions obtained through violence:

"... defendants were made to strip and they were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it, and they were likewise made by the said deputy definitely to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present; and in this manner the defendants confessed the crime, and, as the whippings progressed and were repeated, they changed or adjusted their confession in all particulars of detail so as to conform to the demands of their torturers. When the confessions had been obtained in the exact form and contents as desired by the mob, they left with the parting admonition and warning that, if the defendants changed their story at any time in any respect from that last stated, the perpetrators of the outrage would administer the same or equally effective treatment.
"Further details of the brutal treatment to which these helpless prisoners were subjected need not be pursued. It is sufficient to say that in pertinent respects the transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government."[12]

The Supreme Court concluded: "It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process.... In the instant case, the trial court was fully advised by the undisputed evidence of the way in which the confessions had been procured.... The court thus denied a federal right fully established and specially set up and claimed, and the judgment must be reversed."[12]

Central Park joggerEdit

Main article: Central Park jogger

In the Central Park jogger case, on April 19, 1989, five teens aged from 14 to 16 were arrested and each confessed on videotape to the crime of attacking and raping a jogger and implicated each other. They later repudiated these confessions and maintained their innocence. The five were: Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise. In 1989, the police were aware that an unidentified sixth person had left semen on the victim's body. In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, admitted that he was responsible for the rape and attack of the jogger. The DNA obtained from the crime scene matched Reyes. New York state justice Charles J. Tejada vacated the convictions of five defendants on December 19, 2002. Yusef Salaam served six and a half years in prison. Kharey Wise was imprisoned until summer 2002, which was when his sentence was completed.

Pizza Hut murderEdit

In 1988 Nancy DePriest was raped and murdered at the Pizza Hut where she worked in Austin, Texas. A coworker, Chris Ochoa, pled guilty to the murder. His friend, Richard Danziger, was convicted of the rape. Ochoa confessed to the murder, as well as implicating Danziger in the rape. It was later discovered that the confession had been coerced. The only forensic evidence linking Danziger to the crime scene was a single pubic hair found in the restaurant said to be consistent with his pubic hair type. Although semen evidence had been collected, no DNA analysis was performed at this time. Both men received life sentences. Years later a man by the name of Achim Marino began writing letters from prison claiming he was the actual murderer. The DNA was now finally tested and it did indeed match with Marino. In 2001 Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger were exonerated and released from prison after 12 years of incarceration.

Corethian BellEdit

Cook County, Illinois prosecutors were required to videotape murder confessions, but not interrogations, starting in August 1999. Corethian Bell, who has a diagnosis of mental retardation, said he confessed to the murder of his mother, Netta Bell, because police hit him so hard he was knocked off his chair and because he grew tired and hopeless after being in police custody for more than 50 hours. He said he thought that if he confessed, the interrogations would stop, then he could explain himself to a judge and be set free. With a confession on tape, he was then prosecuted and sent to jail. When the DNA at the crime scene was tested, it matched a serial rapist, who already was in prison for three other violent sexual assaults, all in the same neighborhood as the Netta Bell murder.

Simon MarshallEdit

Simon Marshall was a Canadian rape suspect who was imprisoned for 5 years before genetic evidence found him innocent. Mental retardation was a factor in his confession.

Stephen DowningEdit

Main article: Stephen Downing case

Stephen Downing spent 27 years in prison. The main piece of evidence used against him was a confession he signed, but only after an 8-hour interrogation which left him confused, and his poor literacy skills meant he did not fully understand what he was signing.

Jeffrey Mark DeskovicEdit

Jeffrey Mark Deskovic, was convicted in 1990 at age 16, of raping, beating and strangling a high school classmate, even though jurors were told the DNA evidence in the case did not point to him. He was incarcerated for 15 years. He confessed to the crime after hours of an interrogation without being given an opportunity to seek legal counsel.

Michael CroweEdit

Michael Crowe confessed to the murder of his younger sister Stephanie Crowe in 1998. Michael, 14 at the time, was targeted by police when he seemed "distant and preoccupied" after Stephanie's body was discovered and the rest of the family grieved. After two days of intense questioning, Michael admitted to killing Stephanie. The confession was videotaped by police, and appeared to be coerced; at times Michael saying things to the effect of, "I'm only saying this because it's what you want to hear."

Joshua Treadway, a friend of Michael's, was questioned and also confessed after many hours of interrogation, while Aaron Houser, a mutual friend of the boys, was questioned and did not actually confess but presented a “hypothetical” and incriminating account of the crime under prompting by police interrogators using the Reid Technique. All three boys subsequently recanted their statements claiming coercion.

Michael Crowe’s confession and Aaron Hosuer’s statements to police were later thrown out as coerced by a judge, while part of Josh Treadway’s confession was as well. The parts upheld of Treadway’s confession later became moot when all charges were dropped against all three boys. This did however present difficulties for prosecutors later charging an unrelated party with the crime whose defense team argued that the boys had been responsible.

The charges were dropped after DNA testing linked a neighborhood transient to her blood. A TV movie was made out of the story called The Interrogation of Michael Crowe in 2002.

Gary GaugerEdit

Gary Gauger was sentenced to death for the murders of his parents, Morris, 74, and Ruth, 70, at their McHenry County, Illinois farm in April 1993. He was interrogated for over 21 hours and gave the police a hypothetical statement, and they took it as a confession. His conviction was overturned in 1996 and Gauger was freed. He was pardoned in 2002. Two motorcycle gang members were later convicted of Morris and Ruth Gauger's murders.

Kevin FoxEdit

Kevin Fox was interrogated for 14 hours by Will County, Illinois police before confessing to the 2004 murder of his 3-year old daughter, Riley, which later turned out to be coerced. The real killer turned out to be Scott Eby, a neighbor living a few miles from the Fox family who was serving a 14-year sentence for sex crimes, thanks to DNA results that had not been tested before.

West Memphis ThreeEdit

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were convicted for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys. One month after the murders, police interrogated Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, for 16 hours before confessing to the murders and implicating Echols and Baldwin. Misskelley immediately recanted and said he was coerced to confess. Despite that the confession was different from the police reports, Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life without parole and Echols was sentenced to death. For the next 17 years, they maintained their innocence. In August 2011, DNA evidence exonerated them, but prosecutors refused to throw out the convictions and offered them a deal that they plead guilty in exchange for time served. They accepted, but said that they will continue to clear their names and find the real murderer(s).


13 men and women, ranging in age from their early 50s to mid-70s, were arrested and indicted in Japan for buying votes in an election. Six confessed to buying votes with liquor, cash and catered parties. All were acquitted in 2007 in a local district court, which found that the confessions had been entirely fabricated. The presiding judge said the defendants had "made confessions in despair while going through marathon questioning." [13]

Political coerced confessionsEdit

Soviet UnionEdit

In the Soviet Union a series of show trials known as the Moscow Show Trials, were orchestrated by Joseph Stalin during the Great Purge of the late 1930s, and sent 40+ high level political prisoners either to the firing squad or to labor camps. The trials are today universally acknowledged to have used forced confessions, obtained through torture and threats against the defendants' families, to eliminate any potential political challengers to Stalin's authority.[14]

Islamic Republic of IranEdit

Main article: Human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran

According to at least two observers,[15] the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has systematically used false confessions extracted by torture. They have been used on a much larger scale than in Stalin's Soviet Union because the confessions could be videotaped and broadcast for purposes of propaganda.[16] During the 1980s, television "recantation" shows were common on Iranian state television.[17]

Khmer RougeEdit

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge used torture to force confessions and false implications from approximately 17,000 persons at the former Tuol Sleng high school. All but seven either were executed or died due to the mistreatment.

Voluntary false confessionsEdit

Robert HubertEdit

In 1666, Robert Hubert confessed to starting the Great Fire of London by throwing a fire bomb through a bakery window. It was proven during his trial that he had not been in the country until two days after the start of the fire, he was never at any point near the bakery in question, the bakery did not actually have windows, and he was crippled and unable to throw a bomb. Nevertheless, as a foreigner, a Frenchman, and a Catholic, Hubert was a perfect scapegoat. Ever maintaining his guilt, Hubert was brought to trial, found guilty, and duly executed by hanging.[18]

Laverne PavlinacEdit

Laverne Pavlinac confessed that she and her boyfriend murdered a woman in Oregon in 1990. They were convicted, then released five years later when Keith Hunter Jesperson confessed to a series of murders. She had become obsessed with details of the crime. Her boyfriend confessed to avoid the death penalty. She later said she confessed to get out of an abusive relationship.

John Mark KarrEdit

John Mark Karr confessed to the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. He had become obsessed with the every detail of her murder and was extradited from Thailand. His story did not match details of the case, and his DNA did not match that found at the crime scene. His wife and brother said he was home in another state at the time of the murder, and had never been to Colorado where the murder occurred.


Taping interrogations and confessionsEdit

Most jurisdictions do not require a confession to be videotaped, and fewer still require the audiotaping of interrogations.

See alsoEdit

Other CasesEdit


  2. Saul M. Kassin, “False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17, no. 4 (2008): 249, (accessed August 24, 2009).
  3. Bray, Christopher. "'Hell, someone's cut this girl in half!'", The Daily Telegraph, March 6, 2006. Retrieved January 8, 2008.
  4. includeonly>""Silence is golden" at The", August 13, 2011.
  5. R. v. Oickle, 2000 SCC 38
  7. 7.0 7.1 includeonly>""Inside Interrogation: The Lie, the Bluff and False Confessions" at Journalist's".
  8. Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions by Ervand Abrahamian, University of California Press, 1999 p.5
  10. includeonly>Jackman, Tom. "Clemency Campaign Renews Misery", The Washington Post, December 15, 2008. Retrieved on May 25, 2010.
  11. Dereck Tice
  12. 12.0 12.1 United States Supreme Court. BROWN et al. v. STATE OF MISSISSIPPI.. URL accessed on 2007-09-05.
  13. includeonly>"Pressed by Police, Even Innocent Confess in Japan", New York Times, May 11, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-05-11.
  14. Stalin's terror: high politics and mass repression in the Soviet Union By Barry McLoughlin, Kevin McDermott
  15. Ervand Abrahamian, Nancy Updike
  16. Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.4
  17. Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.222
  18. What is a Confessing Sam? Guilty until proven innocent. The Register [1].

External linksEdit

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