Introduction to Why would a person make a false confession to a crime?

In August 2006, John Mark Karr confessed to the Dec. 26, 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. Some people hoped that Karr's confession would bring an end to the high-profile case, but others wondered whether it was accurate. On Aug. 28, 2006, news sources reported that Karr's DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene and that he wouldn't be charged. Why would a person confess to a crime he didn't commit?

False confessions are relatively common in high-profile criminal cases. For example, more than 200 people confessed to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's son. For this reason, law enforcement officials typically keep some of the details of high-profile investigations secret. If a confessor can describe these secret details, investigators can be more confident that the confession is true.

There are several reasons why a person might come forward to falsely confess to a high-profile crime. He may simply be mentally ill or want attention, fame or­ notoriety. He might feel guilty for past crimes or want to protect the real perpetrator. He might be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, or unable to comprehend the consequences of making a confession.

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­Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale

The Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale (GSS) measures how susceptible a person is to suggestion during an interrogation. It evaluates how likely a person is to:

  • Yield: submit to an interrogator's accusations or fall prey to leading questions
  • ­Shift: change his statements under the interrogator's scrutiny

­Investigators can use the GSS to help evaluate whether confessions have been coerced or to determine how best to question a suspect. This article includes more information about the GSS.

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False Confessions

In addition, interrogation techniques can sometimes lead to false confessions. One such case involved the "Central Park Five." After a lengthy interrogation, five teenagers confessed to raping and beating a jogger in New York's Central Park. All five later recanted their confessions and said that they had confessed because they believed they could go home if they did. Each of the five young men spent between six and 12 years in prison. DNA evidence eventually cleared them of wrongdoing after another man confessed to the crime in 2001.

Usually, false confessions during a police interrogation fall into one of two categories:

  • In a compliant confession, the suspect confesses for a reason. Investigators may have promised the suspect that they will be lenient if he confesses. On the other hand, he may have become so fatigued and upset by the interrogation process that he will do anything to end it.
  • In an internalized confession, the suspect begins to believe that he committed the crime. This can happen if the person is particularly susceptible to suggestion. It can also happen if the investigator repeats the same scenario so many times that the suspect begins to feel as though he remembers it.

A 2004 study of false confessions revealed that most people who make false confessions are young, developmentally disabled or mentally ill. Often, a jury will believe a confession even when physical evidence in the case suggests or proves that the defendant did not commit the crime. For these reasons, the interrogation techniques that can encourage false confessions are controversial.