Why would anyone confess to something they didn’t do?

—David A. Harris

For years, I, like most people, did not believe that a person would ever confess to a serious crime he or she didn’t commit. It just seemed implausible: admitting to a crime meant you were subjecting yourself to punishment—maybe decades in prison or even death. There’s no way you’d do that unless it were true (or you were forced into it).

Of course, with DNA on the scene for more than 20 years, we know better: people do confess to crimes they did not commit, usually because of the huge pressures brought to bear on them in the interrogation room. According to the Innocence Project, about a quarter of the post-conviction DNA-based exonerations on record featured a false confession, or a false statement of guilt of some kind.

Here’s a story that makes a good example of how and why this can happen. In this case, a man named Richard Lapointe falsely confessed to a rape and murder, serving 23 years in prison as a result. Now, a court has ruled that he must receive a new trial. The flaws of Lapointe’s interrogation puts many of the major causes of false confessions on display. For example:

  • The interrogation was not recorded. Recording of interrogations can reduce false confessions and supply an indisputable record of what was said in the interrogation room.
  • The police lied to Lapointe about falsified scientific evidence. Police are allowed to lie in interrogations, but lies about scientific and forensic testing make prison seem inescapable, forcing the suspect to tell the police what they want to hear in order to stop the pressure.
  • The interrogation continued for about nine hours, far longer than average. This increases the chances of a false confession.
  • Lapointe was brain damaged, and the police knew it. Mental disabilities make false confessions more likely.

Lapointe’s case is an object lesson in what can go wrong—and what we should be doing to make sure this doesn’t happen. We should record all interrogations, front to back; prohibit lying to suspects about test results; and limit the interrogation time to two hours, with extensions—perhaps to four hours—only with a supervisor’s permission. These simple steps can keep us from hearing more stories like Lapointe’s in the future.

David A. Harris is Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing and Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work and Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012).

This article first appeared on the author’s blog. Read more here.

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