False Confessions

AuthorWilliam C. Follette, Richard A. Leo, and Deborah Davis
False Confessions
William C. Follette, Richard A. Leo, and Deborah Davis
Thanks to the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, the reality of false
confessions has become part of our pop culture. In the series, sixteen-
year-old Brendan Dassey, a young man with an intellectual disability, was
subjected to hours of interrogation without a parent or an attorney. At the
end of the ordeal, courtesy of facts fed to him by police, he confessed to a
murder he did not commit. The documentary also showed that challenging
the admission and undoing a wrongful conviction are Herculean tasks.
This chapter by professors William C. Follette, Richard A. Leo, and
Deborah Davis is a guide to understanding how people with mental disabil-
ities are particularly vulnerable to false confessions. The chapter also pro-
vides insights into challenging false confessions and working with experts in
false confessions.
• • •
Each day across America hundreds, if not thousands, of people with men-
tal disabilities come in contact with our legal system. The mentally ill are
more likely to provoke the attention of law enforcement or the broader
legal system at some point in their lives. They may be homeless and violate
laws unintentionally or by necessity. They may simply behave strangely
and cause fearful others to contact police. They face competence or com-
mitment hearings, or those to establish legal guardians. For countless rea-
sons they face involvement with law enforcement and legal proceedings
at a higher rate than their normally functioning peers. And when they
do, they face the many stereotypes and prejudices held by the public and
96 Representing People with Mental Disabilities
many professionals. They may be simply disliked and suffer harsher out-
comes for that reason. Or they may be considered more likely to commit
crimes, or to be violent, and viewed as more likely guilty when accused.
But there is another way in which people with mental disabilities can
be at a disadvantage. They can be more likely to be arrested by police and
interrogated. Once interrogated, they can be more vulnerable to confes-
sion, including false confession. This specific disadvantage is the focus of
our chapter. We begin with brief discussion of the larger problem of inter-
rogation-induced false confessions. Next we discuss the reasons why people
with mental disabilities might suffer increased risk of interrogation—
even if innocent. Then we briefly review how interrogations are con-
ducted, why they are effective in eliciting confessions, and the processes
through which they can elicit false confessions. In this context, we dis-
cuss what makes individuals more vulnerable to interrogation tactics, and
therefore at increased risk of coerced, involuntary, and/or false confession.
Next, we describe how a selection of some of the hundreds of mental dis-
orders and vulnerabilities described by the classification system for mental
disorders in the United States could multiply the potential effectiveness of
interrogation tactics. Lastly, we briefly describe how attorneys can make
use of confession scholars to explain to courts and jurors that coerced and/
or false confessions do occur, how and why they sometimes occur, and
who is vulnerable.
The Problem of False Confession
No other evidence is as persuasive to juries as a confession. No other is
harder to explain or discount. Studies have shown that when a false con-
fession is presented to juries, they convict the false confessor 73–88 per-
cent of the time. Most jurors are skeptical that false confessions occur,
especially in serious crimes, because they perceive that to confess to a
crime that one did not commit is highly counterintuitive, irrational, and
Beginning in the late 1800s social scientists and legal scholars have
documented a growing tide of cases where false confessions have promi-
nently contributed to the convictions of innocent persons. Innocent persons
offered full false confessions, some complete with weeping and physical
reenactment of terrible crimes. They were convicted by jurors who failed
to recognize that their confessions were false. Only later, sometimes
decades later, they were proven innocent. Today, there are many published

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