False Confessions: What They Are, How They Happen, And What To Do In Order Not To Fall Victim

The documentary about twice-convicted murderer Steven Avery has captivated many U.S. viewers and it raises some disturbing questions. However, the other case involved–that of his nephew, Brendan Dassey–highlights another area of concern in the criminal justice system: that of false confessions.

What are false confessions?

False confessions are admissions of guilt made by people that are wholly innocent. As incredible as it sounds, people under enough stress can be convinced to admit to horrible things–things that they never did.

If you want proof that it happens, you don't have to look any further than the folks at The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing the wrongly convicted. According to their reports, 1 out of 4 people freed by DNA evidence (that offers incontrovertible proof of their innocence) had made false confessions or statements.

Why do people make them?

There's no one answer. Some people suffering from psychological problems that make it hard to tell fact from fiction make false confessions voluntarily. So do people that are trying to protect someone else.

But many false confessions are called "compliant" confessions. The people who make them are often weaker personalities who try to accommodate others as a way of getting along. Some suffer from developmental delays. Others simply want to get out of a bad situation and, by virtue of their age, education, or intelligence, believe the police when they're reassured that everything will be okay if they confess. Some even eventually convince themselves that they're guilty.

For example, Brendan Dassey was only 16 years old at the time of his confession. He also suffers from developmental delays and has an I.Q. around 70, well below average.

Another reason that people make false confessions has to do with the interrogation tactics often used by police. Investigators who hone in on a suspect that they believe is guilty will often use what is sometimes called the Reid Technique. They actively seek to break down a target's defenses by isolating the individual from family and support and repeatedly telling the target that he or she is guilty. Investigators will offer a theory of how the crime happened and can legally lie to their target and claim to have incontrovertible evidence of his or her guilt.

This was the technique used on Brendan Dassey before his confession. Almost immediately afterwards, when he was allowed to speak to his mother, he's on videotape recanting and says, "They got into my head."

How can you keep from being a victim?

Almost the only way you can really assure yourself of not falling prey to these tactics is to resist the impulse to talk to the police–for whatever reason–without an attorney present. The police cannot bully or intimidate your attorney with evidence that they don't have. Your attorney will also prevent the police from interrogating you for hours on end without relief.

Keep in mind that the police will likely do everything in their power to get you to talk to them, even once you have asserted your right to have an attorney present. If they get you to waive that right through intimidation or fear, they can use anything that you say against you. 

If you've been arrested or are being questioned by police because they think that you know "something," ask for your attorney and then remain silent. Don't continue the conversation or fall into the trap of believing that the police "are trying to help you." Your attorney will help you–that's his or her job. The job of the police is to find someone to arrest when they think a crime was committed. For more information, talk to an attorney, like Eric J. Engan Attorney At Law.