When innocent confess: Modern potential jurors’ attitude toward false confessions

Modern potential jurors are more aware of the false confession phenomenon, with media promoting knowledge about interrogation and confession process. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 3, 430–448

A survey of potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions

Authors

Amelia Mindthoff, Florida International University
Jacqueline R. Evans, Florida International University
Gissel Perez, Florida International University
Skye A. Woestehoff, George Mason University
Alma P. Olaguez, University of California, Irvine
J. Zoe Klemfuss, University of California, Irvine
Christopher J. Normile, Central Michigan University
Kyle C. Scherr, Central Michigan University
Marianna E. Carlucci, Loyola University Maryland
Rolando N. Carol, Auburn University at Montgomery
Christian A. Meissner, Iowa State University
Stephen W. Michael, Whitman College
Melissa B. Russano, Roger Williams University
Eric L. Stocks, University of Texas at Tyler
Jonathan P. Vallano, University of Pittsburg at Greensburg
William Douglas Woody, University of Northern Colorado

Abstract

Confessions represent one of the most influential types of evidence, and research has shown that mock jurors often fail to dismiss unreliable confession evidence. However, recent studies suggest that jurors might believe in the false confession phenomenon more than they once did. One possible reason for this could be increased publicity regarding false confession cases. To assess this possibility, we administered an extensive online survey to a sample of potential jurors in the United States from 11 universities and Amazon Mechanical Turk. Perceptions of confession behaviors (as related to others and oneself), Miranda waivers, interrogation methods, dispositional risk factors, and confession admissibility and evidentiary weight were assessed, in addition to respondents’ self-reported crime-media activity and familiarity with disputed confession cases. Respondents’ perceptions were generally consistent with empirical research findings. Respondents believed suspects do not understand their Miranda rights; gauged interrogation tactics usage relatively accurately; viewed psychologically coercive tactics as coercive and more likely to result in false, rather than true, confessions; and recognized that confessions elicited via coercive measures should be inadmissible as evidence in court. However, respondents’ perceptions did not align with research on interrogation length, and respondents did not fully appreciate the risk youth poses in interrogations. Moreover, being familiar with disputed confession cases resulted in more negative views of interrogations and confessions. Overall, potential jurors are seemingly more cognizant of false confessions and the tactics that elicit them than in the past, and evidence suggests that media outlets can be used to promote interrogation and confession knowledge.

Keywords

Interrogation, confession, juror, Miranda rights

Summary of the Research

“Of 125 known false confession cases, 37 cases were presented at trial (note: the remaining cases did not make it to trial for various reasons such as dismissals or guilty pleas). Consequently, 81% of these 37 cases resulted in a wrongful conviction, meaning 30 innocent people were wrongfully sentenced to serve time in prison on the basis of a confession that was factually false. […] In these cases, all of the safeguards intended to either prevent false confessions in the first place or to minimize their influence failed. Past research indicates that false confessions result from various situational and dispositional risk factors, and despite demonstrations of false confessions in case studies, people have historically found it difficult to believe that innocent suspects would confess to crimes they did not commit. However, recent experimental studies indicate that potential jurors’ confession knowledge may have improved. Assessing these possibly shifting beliefs is the primary goal of the present study, in which we gathered current data regarding lay knowledge of a broad range of interrogations and confessions topics and assessed potential predictors of this knowledge (e.g., familiarity with actual disputed confession cases).” (p. 431)

“Even before questioning begins, innocent suspects encounter risk, as they are more likely than guilty suspects to waive their Miranda rights and undergo police questioning. This is presumably due to innocent suspects’ naïve belief that “the power of their own innocence [will] set them free.” Although this innocence-waiving association is generally accepted in the field, jurors’ perceptions of these Miranda-related decisions have not been extensively examined.” (p. 431)

“Once inside the interrogation room, innocent suspects are at risk of falsely confessing because of the accusatory and psychologically coercive nature of the tactics typically used in U.S. interrogations—a risk that jurors might not fully appreciate. Psychologically coercive tactics minimize suspects’ perception of their freedom of choice and can increase the likelihood of false confessions, and such tactics are more likely to be used when investigators believe a suspect is guilty. […] Fortunately, jurors appear in-tune with the coercive nature of such tactics; however, this is undermined by findings that demonstrate that jurors do not believe that these coercive tactics are likely to result in false confessions. Additionally, dispositional risk factors that enhance susceptibility to coercive techniques can further increase the likelihood that suspects falsely confess, with juveniles emerging as a particularly vulnerable population. Other dispositional risk factors include low IQ, cognitive or developmental disabilities, and mental illness. Generally, jurors appear to understand that such risk factors have the propensity to result in false confessions.” (p. 431)

“Once a confession is elicited, interrogators may mold the postadmission narrative into a script that fits their knowledge of the crime and the existing evidence. […] Furthermore, confessions can be legitimized via corroboration inflation, as other evidence (e.g., forensic and eyewitness evidence) can become biased by the presence of a confession, subsequently appearing to substantiate false confessions. Such inflation can influence jurors’ perceptions of confession evidence, as potential jurors have been shown to perceive high-pressure interrogations as less coercive when evidence corroborated the confession. Overall, research on jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions has indicated that confessions are extremely powerful pieces of evidence that increase the likelihood of conviction. […] While potential jurors do acknowledge that false confessions can sometimes occur, they generally agree that a confession is a strong indicator of a person’s guilt and that people who confess are probably guilty. These beliefs may be driven by the fundamental attribution error, whereby people are more likely to attribute others’ behaviors to dispositional factors (e.g., the suspect’s internal feelings of guilt) at the expense of considering the influence of situational factors (e.g., psychologically coercive interrogation methods).” (pp. 431–432)

“Recent studies examining mock jurors’ perceptions of confession evidence have suggested that jurors might be more cognizant of false confessions than they once were. […] Although these findings are promising, they conflict with the majority of past research on mock juror evaluations of confession evidence and with other recent studies. […] Given these conflicts in the literature, potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions should be reassessed to clarify their core understanding of interrogation and confession phenomenon, which can help to better interpret experimental findings.” (p. 432)

“Jurors’ knowledge may have improved as a function of exposure to high-profile disputed confession cases. […] [The] media-exposure hypothesis is also consistent with the availability heuristic, which posits that people tend to determine the probability of events based on how easily applicable instances come to mind. Jurors exposed to greater amounts of crime-related media should more readily accept that some interrogation methods are coercive and believe that false confessions exist because cases supporting this belief should more easily come to mind.” (p. 432)

“The present study aimed to examine potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions more generally in order to offer researchers and practitioners better (and updated) insight on potential jurors’ core knowledge of these topics. […] Furthermore, the present study sought to enhance the generalizability of results by systematically recruiting a large sample from across the United States. […] In light of recent findings, we expected to see a shift in knowledge as compared with past surveys. Additionally, we hypothesized that those familiar with popularized disputed confession cases would express different views regarding interrogations and confessions (e.g., belief that false confessions occur, that false evidence ploys are coercive), as compared with those unfamiliar with disputed confession cases.” (p. 432)

“A total of 968 participants completed the study. The student subsample (n = 768) was collected from 11 university sites, with at least one site representing each of the U.S. Census Bureau defined regions. […] The community member subsample (n = 200) was collected via Mechanical Turk (MTurk), and participants earned $1 for participation. […] The final student subsample included 648 participants and the final community member subsample included 177 participants, for an overall sample size of 825 participants. […] Participants completed the survey online via Qualtrics. After consenting to participate, respondents were asked questions regarding six topics: general perceptions of confessions (as related to others and oneself), Miranda waivers, perceptions of interrogation methods (including frequency of police use, coerciveness, and relation to true and false confessions), perceptions of the relationship between dispositional risk factors and false confessions, admissibility of confessions and weight of evidence in verdict decisions, and personal characteristics (e.g., crime media engagement and familiarity with disputed confession cases) and demographics.” (pp. 432–433)

“It appears that potential jurors continue to view confessions as relatively strong indicators of guilt; however, potential jurors seem to be more accepting than they once were of claims that suspects might falsely confess. […] Despite these shifts, people still generally believe that they themselves are relatively unlikely to falsely confess. Specifically, respondents indicated that others were more likely to falsely confess in general, and for various specific reasons, than they themselves were. […] The current data do not speak to the basis for this difference, but it could be rooted in the fundamental attribution error and people’s belief that they are immune to the negative effects of coercive interrogations.” (p. 442)

“To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to comprehensively examine potential jurors’ perceptions of suspects’ interactions with Miranda waivers. […] In the current study, potential jurors typically believed that suspects do not understand their Miranda rights, were generally aware that police are likely to use manipulative tactics to get suspects to waive their rights, and believed that innocent suspects are generally more likely than guilty suspects to waive their rights. All three ideas have been supported by past research showing that people typically do not have a working understanding of their Miranda rights, police sometimes use manipulative tactics to get suspects to waive their rights, and innocents are more likely than guilty individuals to waive their rights. Yet, it remains unclear what, if any, influence such juror knowledge would have during a trial.” (pp. 442–443)

“Potential jurors believed that confrontation with true evidence is highly likely to be used by police officers during interrogations. […] Additionally, potential jurors accurately gauged the extent to which threat/use of harm and false evidence ploys are used, offering these the lowest and second lowest use ratings, respectively. […] Contemporary potential jurors appear to have a better sense of what methods police actually do use.” (p. 443)

“One concerning finding is how long potential jurors think an interrogation should last. Respondents indicated that interrogations generally last more than eight hours, and that this amount of time is needed in order to elicit a confession. […] it is possible that some jurors might not question a confession’s reliability if it resulted from a prolonged interrogation. This can be detrimental when jurors make decisions about a confession’s reliability, especially considering that over 80% of interrogations in a proven false confession sample exceeded six hours.” (p. 443)

“Participants offered the highest coerciveness ratings for confrontation with false evidence, threat/use of harm, and, critically, evidence bluffs and promises of leniency. […] Our sample of potential jurors perceived the coercive nature of evidence bluffs as not different to that of false evidence confrontation. This perception is consistent with experimental evidence demonstrating that bluffs result in false confessions at a rate that does not differ from explicit false evidence ploys and that mock jurors do not differentiate between these tactics. Additionally, respondents reported the two least coercive methods to be true evidence confrontation and rapport building.” (p. 443)

“Overall, false evidence confrontation, evidence bluffs, rejecting denials, and threat/use of physical harm were perceived as more likely to lead to false confessions than to true confessions, thus hinting at potential jurors’ ability to recognize the detrimental impact of these tactics on confession diagnosticity. […] It is reassuring that potential jurors are able to recognize that such methods create an elevated risk for false confessions. However, these findings do not align with existing research that suggests that jurors might not be able to apply this knowledge when determining a confession’s reliability. […] The “jury’s still out” on whether potential jurors can effectively apply this improved knowledge.” (pp. 443–444)

“Of further interest, the present results revealed that true evidence confrontation and rapport building were deemed to likely elicit true, rather than false, confessions. […] It seems that contemporary jurors harbor beliefs similar to those held by researchers, who recommend that psychologically coercive interrogation tactics be replaced with strategic and information-gathering methods that elicit more comprehensive suspect reports and diagnostic confession evidence. In conclusion, it is possible that potential jurors have the ability to recognize when interrogation methods result in a more reliable or a less reliable confession, and as such, they might be able to make better decisions in light of confession evidence.” (p. 444)

“Respondents generally recognized the risk for false confession created by all nine of the dispositional factors noted. […] Having a mental illness received the highest mean score. […] Being under the influence of alcohol, under the influence of illegal drugs, and under the influence of prescription drugs, all factors that have not been examined in past jury-confession research, were also rated as strong contributors to false confessions. […] Additionally, having a low IQ, a poor memory of the time of the crime, and being sleep deprived were perceived as contributors to false confessions, which is consistent with past research on contributing factors. Adolescence was viewed as one of the lowest contributors to false confessions. This is disconcerting, given that the developmental phase of adolescence renders teens more prone to falsely confessing and that teens are overrepresented in known false confession samples. […] Overall, it seems that a considerable proportion of potential jurors do not recognize the full extent to which age is a risk factor for false confession.” (p. 444)

“Potential jurors in our sample perceived that they would place more weight on DNA and forensic evidence than they would on confession evidence when reaching a verdict. Eyewitness identification evidence similarly outweighed confession evidence, but only in relation to oral and retracted confessions, not written confessions (which itself outweighed oral and retracted confessions). Additionally, when asked whether confessions elicited using different interrogation methods should be admissible in court, potential jurors tended to report that confessions elicited using confrontation with true evidence and rapport building should be admissible. Conversely, they tended to believe that disputed confessions elicited by more overtly coercive methods (i.e., rejection of denials, evidence bluffs, implicit promises of leniency, threats, lies about the evidence, physical harm, lack of Miranda rights reading, and denial of food or an attorney) should not be admissible. As such, respondents seem to partially understand the law, given that confessions elicited using rapport building and confrontation with true evidence are indeed admissible, and confessions elicited from some coercive tactics are likely inadmissible (e.g., physical harm; but others are generally admissible, like those elicited using false evidence ploys). […] These findings are comforting, considering that coerced (and hence, unreliable) confessions can ultimately be presented as evidence at trial, and judges might not be fully aware that false confessions have led to wrongful convictions or of the detrimental effects of coercive interrogation methods on confession reliability. […] Given the present findings, there is hope that potential jurors can recognize the “circumstances” that can result in coerced, and possibly false, confessions, and thus place less weight on those confessions.” (p. 444)

“General crime-related media behavior did not emerge as a strong correlate for interrogation and confession perceptions. However, as hypothesized, we found that potential jurors familiar with a specific disputed/false confession case (e.g., Central Park Five) perceived several tactics as more coercive and more likely to result in false confessions relative to participants not familiar with such a case. Most importantly, compared with nonfamiliar respondents, familiar respondents were more pessimistic about interrogations and confession evidence on a host of measures (e.g., less likely to perceive confessions as indicators of guilt, more likely to believe that innocent people in general might falsely confess). Nonetheless, it is important to remember that these findings are correlational as it is possible that either familiarity informs beliefs or beliefs influence media engagement behaviors (e.g., disputed confession media viewing). Overall, these findings can be explained by the availability heuristic, as potential jurors who know about false confession cases might think that such instances occur more often than do potential jurors who do not, leaving them more open to the possibility that a given confession is false. Thus, knowledge of disputed/false confession cases should be considered as a covariate in the development of future mock juror confession studies, especially since such knowledge appears to be prevalent.” (p. 445)

“Although there were some differences between the subsamples […], the more striking finding was the extent of the agreement between students and community members. […] Findings derived from student samples are largely generalizable to potential juror populations, making participant recruitment easier for future studies, and suggesting that we can be more confident when basing policy decisions on research employing student samples.” (p. 445)

Translating Research into Practice

“Overall, our results suggest that contemporary jurors are aware that Miranda waivers may be uninformed or the result of manipulation. To the extent that triers-of-fact are able to appreciate these factors and weigh them accordingly, policy reform should mandate the video recording of Miranda administrations that could be presented and evaluated in court. However, it is also possible that jurors, despite being aware of reasons innocents would waive their rights (e.g., respondents reported that innocents may waive their rights to appear not guilty to police and triers-of-fact), would draw negative inferences when a suspect remained silent or otherwise invoked his rights. […] Hence, a policy reform to better protect innocent suspects may be to reestablish the initial precedent of the Miranda ruling and not allow any negative inferences to be used against suspects who remain silent and invoke their rights.” (pp. 445–446)

“Regarding false confessions, relative to potential jurors of the past, contemporary potential jurors generally appear to be more accepting of the possibility that false confessions can occur. Furthermore, they seem to possess insight as to the coercive nature of certain interrogation methods and the propensity of these methods to result in less diagnostic confessions. These updated findings should be considered in the development of future research hypotheses, as it seems that researchers should no longer assume that jurors automatically presume guilt in the presence of a confession.” (p. 446)

“In addition, our potential jurors’ belief that coercive tactics can result in false confessions and should not be admissible in court paves the way for possible policy change. […] It is possible that jurors will be less likely to rely on confession evidence that was elicited using such tactics. This phenomenon can be detrimental to police and prosecutors, as it can result in an increase in acquittals. Thus, prosecutorial legal players should consider ceasing the use of especially detrimental tactics (i.e., nondiagnostic interrogation techniques) and instead proactively implement evidence-based interrogation trainings for police officers.” (p. 446)

“Furthermore, our findings have implications for policies regarding juvenile interrogations. As previously mentioned, juveniles are typically treated similarly to adult suspects in interrogative contexts, despite being at greater risk for falsely confessing. This is particularly problematic because, as indicated by the present findings that potential jurors do not fully comprehend the detrimental impact youth can have on confession behaviors, jurors may not be effective safeguards against negative impacts of juvenile false confessions. […] Policies at the interrogation-level should be assessed and modified to help protect juvenile suspects.” (p. 446)

“Last, even though potential jurors are generally more knowledgeable than they once were, their knowledge is still far from perfect. […] Our finding that media regarding false confession cases may influence potential jurors’ perceptions of interrogations and confessions indicates that expert researchers could use media outlets as a way to promote better understanding of how the coercive nature of certain interrogation methods can result in false confessions. It is further important that researchers take on this task in order to ensure that the information presented in such outlets is accurate and empirically supported. By engaging in public awareness, researchers might eventually influence policy regarding coercive interrogation methods and confession admissibility from the bottom-up. Ultimately, this promotion of knowledge may reduce wrongful convictions stemming from false confessions.” (p. 446)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Although we sought to collect data from jury-eligible participants, it is possible that some of our respondents were not jury-eligible. Specifically, our eligibility exclusions were not comprehensive […]. Thus, caution must be exercised when generalizing the present results to all potential jurors, and future research could benefit from collecting data from potential jurors at courthouses who are serving jury duty. Furthermore, generalizability concerns are commonly expressed when data is collected via MTurk. […] Additionally, we only assessed perceptions of general interrogation technique categories rather than individual tactics (e.g., we assessed true evidence confrontation, which can refer to a number of specific tactics such as early evidence disclosure or presenting crime scene photos). […] It would be interesting for future research to assess potential jurors’ perceptions of individual interrogation tactics. Future research could also assess jurors’ perceptions of the cumulative effect of multiple tactics employed at once; for example, jurors’ perceptions of an interrogation during which rapport building is used in conjunction with false evidence presentation.” (p. 445)

“Last, it is important to note that our results do not necessarily attest to jurors’ sensitivity or skepticism regarding confession evidence. […] It is possible that media surrounding disputed confession cases, while increasing prospective jurors’ knowledge of false confessions, simply could be making jurors skeptical of confession evidence. Future research should address this question.” (p. 445)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

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