Coerced confessions and erroneous investigations

Kati Gardella, Crier Staff

After a crime has occurred, police want to quickly narrow down persons of interest and assign blame. A potential suspect, once identified, is requested to come speak at the station. This is seemingly benign, but the individual may soon be subject to an extremely manipulative and coercive interrogation.

Interrogators have been trained to ruthlessly question the suspect, powered with the assumption that if the suspect is innocent, they will have nothing to hide.

In truth, the corruption in the interrogation process is so strong that it is not unheard of for a completely innocent person to confess and be wrongfully detained, with the true perpetrator free to engage in more criminal activity. False confessions are the third leading cause of wrongful convictions, and unjust interrogations are prominently to blame for this statistic.

Every aspect of the interrogation is instrumentally planned. Suspects are taken to a small room with walls barren of any visual distractions. The suspect has no choice but to focus on the person interrogating them. They may be offered snacks or drinks to make them more comfortable, and the detective will begin by asking neutral questions such as about school or work.

This is all to increase the potential of the suspect opening up and trusting the one questioning them.

Miranda rights are constitutionally enforced, as well as the fifth amendment right to remain silent. These are made known to the suspect, but police know how to undetectably coerce the suspect into waiving their Miranda rights.

They initially make non-alarming statements such as “we just want to hear your side of the story so we can figure out what happened.” The suspect feels unthreatened, and at this point does not even recognize that he or she is being considered as a suspect. Miranda rights are waived, and therefore the interrogation commences.

The Reide Technique is the most popular interrogation strategy in the United States, and is extremely confrontational.

The process involves systematically interrupting the suspect when they plead their innocence, and siding with the suspect by making promises such as “if you cooperate with me and tell me what you did, you won’t go to jail.” The suspect will be asked to provide details and produce a written account of the crime. Police may even pressure them to write a letter of apology to the victim, implementing guilt in the mind of the suspect.

Police are legally allowed to completely fabricate evidence to introduce into the interrogation. They may say things along the lines of “your DNA (hair, blood, etc.) was found on the victim,” or “we found the murder weapon in your room.” This will of course greatly confuse the innocent suspect, who is then asked to explain why this evidence was found, even though in reality the evidence is non-existent.

Interrogation tactics can escalate to being akin to psychological torture. Physical discomfort is purposefully created by not allowing the suspect to take bathroom breaks, and by leaving them completely isolated for significant amounts of time. Suspects are often questioned for hours on end, and are not allowed to sleep. Sleep deprivation is a known form of torture.

We like to think that we as rational beings would never confess to a crime that we did not commit. We do not consider, however, how much our mental state would be altered after being subjected to hours of questioning.

Suspects may already be vulnerable, especially if they lost a loved one in a very shocking way, and were accused of committing the heinous act themselves.

All interrogations should be recorded with both the one receiving and the one giving the interrogation in view of the camera. This way, the speech and body language of each can readily be monitored and analyzed

Future reforms of the interrogation process are necessary to ensure that the human rights of the suspect are protected, and if a confession is given, it is given voluntarily and with free consent.

The textbook Wrongful Conviction: From Prevention to the Reversal of Injustice by Professor John Humphrey and Professor Kaitlyn Clarke was a critical resource for this article. I also suggest watching interrogation videos online.