Confession Evidence

Date01 October 2008
Published date01 October 2008
Subject MatterArticles
Commonsense Myths and Misconceptions
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Confession evidence is powerful but flawed, often in nonintuitive ways. Contradicting widely held beliefs,research reviewed
in this article suggests the following: Despite special training in how to conduct interviews, police cannot distinguish better
than the layperson whether suspects are lying or telling the truth. Suspects in custody routinely waive their self-protective
rights to silence and to counsel—especially if they are innocent. Certain legal but deceptive interrogation tactics increase the
risk that innocents will confess to crimes they did not commit. Judges and juries are easily fooled, unable to distinguish
between true and false confessions. Appellate courts cannot be expected to reasonably determine whether the error of admit-
ting a coerced confession at trial was harmless or prejudicial.
Keywords: police interrogation; lie detection; confessions; wrongful conviction
In criminal law, confession evidence is common, potent, and highly regarded. Hence, it is
said, “The introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court super-
fluous” (McCormick, 1972, p. 316). Yet confessions are fallible. Contrary to the wide-
spread belief that normal people do not confess to crimes they did not commit, the pages
of American history, reaching back to the Salem witch trials of 1692, betray large numbers
of men and women who were wrongfully prosecuted, convicted, imprisoned, and some-
times sentenced to death, on the basis of false confessions (for reviews, see Drizin & Leo,
2004; Gudjonsson, 1992, 2003; Kassin, 1997, 2005, 2008; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004;
Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Lassiter, 2004).
Confessions have been proven false in a number of ways, for instance, when it turns out
that no crime was committed, the real perpetrator is found, or the confessor’s involvement
was physically impossible. Whatever the mechanism, although the prevalence rate is
unknown, false confessions occur with some degree of regularity. In Europe, 12% of pris-
oners, 3% to 4% of college students, and 1% to 2% of older university students reported that
they have confessed to crimes they did not commit (Gudjonsson, 2003). In North America,
police investigators recently estimated that 4.78% of innocent people confess during inter-
rogation (Kassin et al., 2007). Within the recent population of postconviction DNA cases,
roughly 25% contained confessions in evidence—a sample that represents the tip of a much
larger iceberg (Drizin & Leo, 2004; Gross, Jacoby, Matheson, Montgomery, & Patel, 2005;
Scheck, Neufeld, & Dwyer, 2000).
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, Vol. 35 No. 10, October 2008 1309-1322
DOI: 10.1177/0093854808321557
© 2008 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Please address all correspondence to Saul M. Kassin, Department of Psychology, John
Jay College of Criminal Justice, 445 West 59 Street, New York, NY 10019; e-mail:

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