Written by Amandi Serena
Movies often depict criminals that are punished for their crimes and sent to jail but what’s the reality like? Currently, 2, 3 to 5% of prisoners in American jails are there because they confessed to crimes they did not commit.
We all have seen movies where the bad guys are sent to jail by police officers and investigators but do we ever stop and think about the mistakes made by the task force against innocents? Those mistakes often put innocents behind bars without any adequate reason. This recently caught my attention and I found out that it is more common than what we might think. In fact, a project called the ‘Innocence Project’ discovered that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in American jails are innocent, which corresponds to about 120,000 people altogether. According to statistics, this is a serious problem and I believe we should learn more about how innocent people commit to crimes they did not commit, so let’s do it together.
The first question to ask would be how this may happen. Well, research shows that one of the major reasons is false confessions, i.e. confessing to crimes one has not committed (Leo, 2009). In other words, some people confirm their involvement in crimes they have not committed but are being accused of because they might want to redeem themselves from crimes or mistakes they might have done in the past and that they were not punished for and thus, would want to ‘make things right’ or also because they want to protect someone close to them. An example of this is the case of Mayra Rosales, also known as the “Half-Ton Killer”, who claimed to have killed her two-year-old nephew to protect her sister. Nevertheless, Mayra’s initial statement was disregarded as further investigations confirmed she could have not done it due to her burgeoning obesity.
From another perspective, police officers might be the ones to influence the interrogations or ask questions in a certain way because they are overinfluenced by what is known as confirmation bias. In other words, they might be biased to ‘hear what they want to hear’ and interpret the interrogations to confirm their assumptions. For example, nowadays, there is a widespread mentality that minority people are more likely to commit crimes and more specifically, individuals that live in the suburbs or that come from less privileged backgrounds. So, when police officers interrogate them they might already think they are guilty and perhaps shape the questions to confirm their beliefs. Similarly, the officers in charge might use a language or questioning that might lead people to confess.
These facts seem unacceptable if we think we live in a fair society, however, we should also be mindful that police officers are human too, and like every single one of us, they might make mistakes. There is no excuse for putting innocents in jail but what we should remember is that several studies have concluded that individuals in the task force are no better than civilians when it comes to detecting when people are lying. The only difference between the two is those police officers are more confident in following their hunches.
Nevertheless, this situation must change but the difficulty is that, especially in Asian countries, there are fewer laws to protect the so-called-criminals thus, they might be subject to both physical and psychological threats and never-ending hours of interrogations. As a consequence, this makes people more likely to confess to crimes they have not committed because they want the suffering and the torture to end. Likewise, after many hours of interrogation and harsh conditions, due to high levels of pressure, stress, anxiety, and pain, people might even start to think they are indeed guilty. This is particularly true for young people as they are more susceptible to confessing if put through highly stressful or traumatic experiences.
A widely used interrogation technique is the Reid technique, which is divided into three phases. In the first one, the police officers ask questions to assess changes in the behavior of the accused. If they think the person is lying, they move to phase two which consists of accusing the suspect and ignoring the suspect’s attempt to deny everything. Sometimes denial is even thought to be an admission of guilt. In the last phase, they might tell the person that they have witnesses to what has happened which might cause doubts in the head of the suspect and question the events they are being accused of. This is particularly true in the USA where police are permitted to lie and tell the suspects that they have witnesses ready to testify against them.
One example is the case of Barry Laughman, a man suffering from mental health difficulties who was coerced into confessing to raping and murdering a neighbor after investigators had told him they found his fingerprints at the crime scene. Although his other neighbors offered an alibi, the police officers disregarded everything and put him behind bars for 16 years. Another piece of evidence the investigators claimed to have found was his blood at the crime scene, however, what’s important to note here is that Laughman’s blood type was B whereas the blood found at the crime scene was type A. However, they cajoled him to confess after they claimed that the difference in blood type was only due to bacterial degradation.
As seen in movies or read in books, only the bad guys are sent to prison making the job of the police officers and investigators easier with the presence of distinct cues such as changes in music or flashbacks that show the spectators what had happened before. Similarly, if either the suspects or police officers do engage with false confessions, viewers would be able to get a deeper understanding of their character. To illustrate, if the character being accused of crime uses a false confession, we would understand more regarding his or her morals and values whereas if it is used by the investigators, that would tell us about the morality of the police officers or the police department.
Nevertheless, there are no cues in real life and, although some advancements have been made in this field, there is the need to constantly improve the jurisdiction system and find methods that are improved and the forefront to be able to only accuse guilty people.
In conclusion, there’s only one important question to ask: how can we make this better? How can we make sure justice is served for the bad guys and keep our loved ones at home if they are being accused of crimes they have not committed? To be honest, there is a long way to go but many reforms have been suggested amongst which recording all interrogations and limiting interrogation time and prohibiting the police to lie. With regard to the harsh Reid interrogation technique, some advancement in the interrogation style has been put forward. For instance, it has been suggested that police officers should not overly focus on behavioral assessment but give more importance to the ‘cognitive load’ that is asking open-ended questions to see if the suspects recant or can keep their stories straight. This new method has already been adopted in some countries such as England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
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