We see it in the movies all the time. A suspect is taken into custody and after many hours of questioning the police announce they have a confession. Are all these confessions accurate or could some of these be false confessions?
Take the case of Kevin Mannix, a Gold Coast man who in 1984 had his neck slashed and was brutally stabbed numerous times in the chest in his own home. Initially the police did not have a suspect but then turned to the victim’s son Barry Mannix as the prime suspect. After 12 hours of interrogation Barry Mannix signed two written confessions admitting to killing his father. However, just before his trial another individual confessed to being party to the murder along with implicating three other accomplishes when he was questioned by police about a stolen car.
All four men were arrested for the murder of Kevin Mannix including one man who was a former employee of the victim. Two of the men were convicted of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment while the other two pled guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to six years each (Source: Australian Institute of Criminology).
Subsequently Barry Mannix lodged a complaint with the Police Complaints Tribunal of Queensland. During the Tribunal, Barry Mannix asserted that he had been physically and verbally coerced during the police interrogation including when a detective threatened to lock up his mother or grandparents if he did not give them a statement. He also said one investigating officer grabbed him by the hair and with his other hand pushed a clenched fist up to Mannix’s side saying: “I ought to smash you right in the face you shithead” (quoted in Queensland 1986, p. 13).
Why do people make false confessions?
Psychological research into false confessions shows that people make false confessions for various reasons under a variety of circumstances. Not only do people falsely confess due to physical or psychological coercion by police, as the example above shows. Even if the police are not intentionally trying to intimidate someone, he or she might find being questioned by police or just the interview process itself stressful and as a result falsely confess in order to make it stop.
Sometimes individuals who falsely admit to a crime are seeking attention and recognition. Or they may make a false confession in order to protect someone else. In other cases people may not understand how, where or why their confession will be used, and make a false confession such as in the case of a person with an intellectual disability, mental illness or someone who is intoxicated on alcohol or drugs. For example, research in the U.S. revealed that individuals with intellectual disabilities were over-represented when it came to proven false confessions (Source: North Carolina Law Review).
Critics argue that there are just some people by nature who are suggestible and unduly compliant.
Although physical coercion is not typically used anymore, psychological coercion is still prevalent. In North America the Reid technique uses psychological tactics like confronting suspects with real or fabricated evidence or the rejection of their denials to obtain a confession. This technique is not used in Australia due to legislation preventing police from lying to suspects during an investigation. In comparison, the PEACE model guides Australian practice – a technique that uses conversation management strategies instead.
How many wrongful convictions are due to false confessions?
In the U.S. research reveals that 0.5 to 5 per cent of convictions are recorded against innocent people. Wrongful convictions occur in Australia as well. However according to Professor David Homer, Sydney Exoneration Project supervisor, we do not have reliable data as to how or why they occur because there are no mechanisms in place to identify the amount or cause of wrongful convictions.
Conservative estimates put the rate of wrongful convictions at about one per cent of all crimes. That means of the over 8,500 crimes that occur per year in Australia approximately 327 of them are miscarriages of justice.
The 2016 Sydney Exoneration Project called Not Guilty looked at possible wrong convictions that did not involve DNA evidence. The project revealed that not only false memories and laboratory error but also false confessions were among the main reasons behind wrongful convictions.
An official inquiry (the Fitzgerald Inquiry) into police practices in Australia revealed systemic and deep-rooted corruption within some of its police forces. For example, it was discovered that “verballing” or the fabrication of confessions was a contributing factor to wrongful convictions.
In response to the Inquiry, reforms were put in place to help prevent false confessions including police being required to audiotape or videotape their interviews with suspects. Section 436 of the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act (Qld) 2000, states:
Recording of questioning must, if practicable, be electronically recorded. If the person makes a confession or admission to a police officer during the questioning, the confession or admission is admissible in evidence against the person in a proceeding only if it is recorded as required by subsection (4) or section 437. If the confession or admission is electronically recorded, the confession or admission must be part of a recording of the questioning of the person and anything said by the person during questioning of the person (Source: University of Cincinnati Law Review).
This requirement now typically applies throughout Australia.
How can we reduce false confessions?
It is a myth to believe that people only confess to a crime when they are guilty. The degree to which wrongful convictions occur is quite slim and because of this some argue the end justifies the means.
Any innocent person who goes to jail due a wrongful conviction is wrong. One way to prevent it according to the Australian Psychological Association is to train law enforcement how to recognise false confessions or to not use techniques that encourage it.