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The psychology behind false confessions


New Jersey watchers of the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer" likely know that questions have been raised about the reliability of confessions made by suspects after hours of grueling interrogation by police officers. The innocent confessing to crimes they did not commit seems unimaginable to most people who have not spent several terrified hours in a police interview room, and this could explain why confessions are so coveted by prosecutors and persuasive to juries.

Many veteran police officers employ what is known as the Reid Technique when questioning a suspect who is expected to be truculent or uncooperative. Officers using the technique badger suspects for hours on end in a manner designed to keep them off balance and uncomfortable. The thinking is that this kind of questioning can often jar loose stubbornly-held details, but psychologists say that emotionally fragile suspects may be pushed into making false confessions just to make the questioning stop.

Psychologists say that individuals who make false confessions are often poorly educated or have low IQs, and the suspects sometimes naively feel that their confession will not be held against them simply because they are innocent. Police officers may also overwhelm suspects unfamiliar with the criminal justice system with the fear that they face almost certain conviction, and suspects resigned to their fate may see confession as their best hope for leniency.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may urge their clients to only answer questions from law enforcement officers in the presence of legal representation. Veteran police officers are highly skilled and are permitted to mislead suspects in many situations, and they may appear understanding or even sympathetic in order to establish rapport or build trust. However, these tactics are less likely to be used when experienced defense attorneys are present and work to keep the questions relevant and the atmosphere businesslike.

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