Telling Lies to the Police
False confessions: Part 1.
THERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY PEOPLE MAKE A FALSE STATEMENT TO THE GARDAI WRITES PATRICK HORAN AND THIS WORRYING TREND SHOWS NO SIGNS OF DECREASING.
-How many people did you kill?
-How many people did I kill altogether? In my whole…?
-No, in the house that night.
-As far as I could remember I was only after doing one but then I found out there was two.
-You can only remember killing one person?
-Why is that?
-I am not too sure. As I say, my mind wasn't. It's hard to describe when you're so, when you’re on…
- Bridewell Garda Station, 26 July, 1997.
On 9 March 1950 Timothy Evans, a 26-year-old lorry driver was hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter. The police claimed that Evans confessed as soon as he arrived at the station. It was later discovered that the police had interrogated him all night, recording three different confessions.
In each version Evans added more detail, demonstrating an unusual skill with numbers and words, despite being virtually illiterate.
Evans and his family lived in a house in London with their landlord, John Christie, a retired police officer.
During his trial, Evans repeatedly blamed Christie for the murders. Although they searched Christie’s home, police failed to locate any evidence implicating him, despite the presence of a human thigh bone supporting a fence post in his garden.
Christie was arrested three years later and admitted murdering Evan’s wife as well as six other women, three of whom died after Evans was hung. The case provoked a national scandal and led to a Home Office review which later recommended the abolition of the death penalty.
The scandal of false confessions has historically been a dark thread running through the criminal justice systems of most countries.
Gisli Gudjonsson is a former Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at King’s College London and an internationally recognised expert in false confessions.
Gudjonsson gave expert evidence at the retrials of both the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four and according to him the problem of false confessions is greater than had previously been thought.
“If you talk to people in prison something like 20% of them are saying they made a false confession in their life”. As a young policeman in Iceland in 1974 he was peripherally involved in a murder inquiry where 6 teenagers admitted to murdering two people but could not provide any details about the crimes. All were convicted. Five were later acquitted in 2018.
“If you talk to people in prison something like 20% of them are saying they made a false confession in their life”.
False confessions can result from what Gudjonsson calls a pathological need for attention -usually notoriety- and often have their origins in feelings of inadequacy and chronic self-esteem issues.
As a phenomenon people from all walks of life are susceptible to them. “It’s a myth” adds Gudjonsson “that only people with mental illness or learning disabilities make false confessions to serious crimes”.
The spectre of people confessing to often brutal crimes has haunted law enforcement agencies for over a hundred years. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son in 1932 was accompanied by a media frenzy that engulfed the United States and led to more than 200 people claiming to have been responsible.
When Elizabeth Short was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947 something very similar happened. Known as the Black Dahlia case, police became inundated with people admitting to having murdered and dismembering the actress, including Daniel S. Voorhees, a local drifter.
Voorhees even allowed himself to be photographed by the media pointing at crime scene photos “assisting the police”. Voorhees was eventually cleared as a suspect. At the time a conviction for murder in Los Angeles resulted in death by electric chair.
Yet Voorhees confessed. Why?
Daniel S. Voorhees
The phenomenon of false confessions is not confined to those who with previous convictions or who suffer from mental illness.
In a study conducted at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Saul Kassin asked 71 university students to press various buttons on a keyboard as they were read aloud.
Students were explicitly warned not to press the ALT key as this would “crash the experiment”.
The computers were secretly primed to crash within one minute of the test. The experimenter then pretended to be upset that the experimental data was “lost” and requested that the student sign a confession.
Only one person actually pressed the ALT key but 25% of the respondents were so shocked by the accusation that they confessed to something they did not do.
When Kassin ran the test a second time by including a person who “saw” the student hitting the key, the numbers of innocent students falsely confessing jumped to 80%.
-Any detail of the second lady?
-I can't remember now to be honest with you.
-Are you aware of any injuries that these ladies received?
-Do you remember what you did to them, the two women?
-As I was saying my mind went blank. Not that I went blank but I panicked more than anything else and I didn't really want it, what happened. To be honest I did not think there was that much damage until I got outside and I seen Tara up the road and it was her that noticed the blood. When I seen so much blood that's when I recall there must have been some damage done.
-Right but do you not it amazing that you can recall exactly what happened when you went in, when you stabbed them but after that it's a kind of a blank? Can you remember any little bit at all?
-Not really no.
-Can you account? (Interjection). Or is it that you don’t want to remember it?
-What do you mean? Sorry, what do you mean can you account?
- Bridewell Garda Station, 26 July, 1997.
What causes false confessions and why are police forces routinely duped by them? A primary mistake is what Steven Drizin calls the “coercion error”. Drizin, a clinical law professor at Northwestern University School of Law, has studied more than 300 cases of false confessions.
“It’s like you’re on this speeding train going down the track and its extremely difficult to get that train to stop”.
“When the police officer enters the interrogation room, they’ve already presumed that the suspect is guilty based on evidence that has been gathered in the course of the investigation”.
A specific, but recognisable pattern begins to unfold. Firstly, the police undermine their own investigation by making implied or direct threats, attempting to convince the suspect that the short-term benefits of a confession outweigh the long-term consequences that it might bring.
After that momentum takes over.
The investigation quickly begins to contort and narrow, tunnel-vision begins to set in, the investigation starts to resemble an inquisition, and the police begin to ignore all evidence that tends to point away from the suspect.
Now the phenomenon of “confirmation bias” takes effect, where the police cease looking for information in an objective manner and start searching for evidence that tends to confirm their own concrete view that the suspect is the suspect.
The formal process of gathering impartial evidence is now at an end and the investigation begins to rapidly coalesce around a central theory against which any contrary evidence is roundly dismissed. The central theory is accorded almost gospel-like status.
A sort of mania now descends.
Now evidence, no matter how impractical or flimsy is accepted almost without question as long as it bolsters the central theory. By contrast, evidence which tends to show that the suspect could not have committed the crime (e.g. the suspect was in a different city that day) is only grudgingly accepted as long as it is possible that the suspect could in theory have driven or flown from one place to another.
The fact that this scenario might be completely implausible is again dismissed.
“It’s like you’re on this speeding train”, says Jim Trainum, former homicide detective and now consultant on false confessions, “going down the track and its extremely difficult to get that train to stop”.