Innocent people don’t confess and they don’t plead guilty psychology today electricity use estimator


I’ve written about more than my share of serial killers but William Heirens may be the first one who was actually innocent. Dubbed the Lipstick killer for a note he allegedly wrote at one of the crime scenes in 1945, he was the longest serving inmate in the U.S. prison system.

We may never know if William Heirens was guilty or innocent, but what has become crystal clear over the years is that his confession to three murders in 1946 tells us little about whether Heirens actually committed the crimes. Over the past 73 years, psychologists have learned a lot of truisms about human nature that fly in the face of common sense. One of them is that innocent people do confess to crimes they did not commit – a lot more often than we might think.

According to the Innocence Project, about 1 out of 4 of their cases later proven innocent f alsely confessed at the time of the crime. In most cases, new DNA technology exonerated the false confessor. In others, authorities discovered the crime never happened (for example, when a missing person reappears) or it came to light that it was physically impossible for the confessor to have committed the crime (as when the suspect was already in custody or too young to have produced semen). In some cases, the true perpetrator was apprehended and his guilt clearly established or, most rarely, the true perpetrator came forward on his own. But in every case, the convicted person was innocent but, at some point, said he was not.

Most guilty people never confess to a crime, so why would an innocent person? Some take the rap to protect someone they love. A few do it to get attention, or convince themselves that they really are guilty. The majority of false confessions, however, happen during a perfect storm of vulnerable defendants and coercive interrogation strategies.

For example, the risk of undue influence during interrogation is higher among adolescents, individuals with compliant or suggestible personalities, and those with intellectual impairments or diagnosed psychological disorders. Not only was William Heirens only 17 years old at the time of his arrest, an off-duty officer had hit him on the head repeatedly with a stack of three flower pots to end the tussle between Heirens and the cop attempting to arrest him. He was unconscious when taken into custody.

Not surprisingly, we know that people who are tortured are more likely to confess; in fact, torture someone long enough and hard enough and he will confess to being the second shooter in the Kennedy assassination. In 1946, William Heirens was subjected to interrogation tactics more consistent with those found in Guantanamo Bay than in a local police office; either was poured on his genitals, he was punched in the stomach, given a spinal tap without anesthesia, grilled for hours under a spotlight and deprived of food, water and sleep.

Torture isn’t the only thing likely to lead to a false confession. Explicit threats of what will happen if a person doesn’t confess can do the trick. William Heirens was not only told repeatedly that he would get the death penalty if convicted, his cell was a short distance away from the electric chair, giving him a constant visual reminder.

Another interrogation strategy likely to encourage a confession – real or false – is the false evidence bluff. In this case, the accused is lied to and told that the investigators already have solid evidence linking the suspect to the crime. So, for instance, if you have two partners in crime, each may be told that the other person has already ratted him out to save his own skin. The hope being that each party will be incensed by the alleged betrayal of the other person and give up the goods for real.

In the William Heirens case, he was told that one of his fingerprints was found at a crime scene. He was told his handwriting matched a ransom note. Long before he wrote out an actual confession, he read one made up by a news reporter and published in the newspaper. So, not only was William Heirens repeatedly told about the damning evidence against him (much of which was later discredited), it was on the front page of the newspaper.

We can believe that an eye witness could make a mistake. We can believe that a defendant could forget or misremember an important detail. But we do not believe that someone who knows he is innocent will confess to a crime he did not commit. As a result, it’s almost impossible for a defendant to recover from a false confession; it trumps just about any other evidence.

Jury research shows just how powerful a false confession is in the deliberation room. Even when mock jurors know a confession was obtained through abusive or harsh tactics, even when they say it did not play a part in their guilty verdict, they are more likely to convict.

Here’s an example of the power of a false confession. In two studies, mock jurors read about fictitious defendants who were accused of murder and terrorist activities. The mock jurors were given the same supporting evidence but the statements the defendant allegedly made during a police interview were manipulated among different groups of jurors; in some cases, the defendant lied, in some cases, he confessed, and in some, he told the truth. The various groups of pretend jurors then deliberated, gave a verdict, and answered questions about how much weight they gave to what evidence.

Defendants who had lied or confessed to police were more likely to be convicted than those who told the truth. However, jurors who had to judge a lying defendant tended to rely on the presence or absence of supporting evidence to render their verdict; in other words, the lies were one strike against the defendant but were weighed against the other facts in the case. However, when the defendant confessed, mock jurors tended to vote guilty no matter what the supporting evidence suggested.

In real life, people don’t do much better. In cases where judges rule that a confession was not voluntary by law, they still use it as a basis for conviction. A study of 125 cases of innocent confessors found that, among those who pled not guilty and went to trial, jurors convicted 80% of them.

The truth about William Heirens’ involvement in the 1945/46 murders died with him on March 5, 2012. There are people who still believe he was guilty and those who tried to set him free. What we’ve learned over the past 70+ years is that innocent people do confess and that videotaping an interrogation can help jurors see how a confession is obtained. It’s a lot easier for jurors to understand how an innocent person’s confession included closely guarded details of a crime if they were discussed by police officers during questioning.

Expert testimony about the psychology of false confessions can help a jury spot the personal vulnerabilities and interrogation conditions most likely to led to a false confession. We might think the right choice between confessing to a crime we didn’t commit and trusting a jury to uncover the truth is obvious, but what about when the choice is life or death? As William Heirens said, The thing is, once you’re dead, there’s no clearing things up. When you’re alive, you still have a chance to prove that you weren’t guilty. So I was better off being alive than being dead.”