A false confession occurs when a person admits they are guilty when they are not actually responsible for the crime. Such confessions may occur through coercion or force to obtain a statement. False confessions may also result from the mental incapacity of the accused person. False confessions occur regularly and present many problems during a criminal trial.

False confessions may also be used to avoid harsh sentences, for instance, if a person pleads guilty to a lesser offense that they did not commit.

There are three general classifications of false confessions:

  • Voluntary confessions: These are false confessions made freely without any prompting or coercion by the police
  • Compliant confessions: These are false confessions given in return for a reward
  • Internalized confessions: The confessor believes they are guilty of the crime; this may result either from a mental disorder or as the result of excessively suggestive interrogation procedures

Hundreds of convicted prisoners have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the past twenty years, revealing that police-induced false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

The media has reported numerous high-profile cases where individuals were convicted of and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, only to be later exonerated. Most of these exonerations occurred thanks to postconviction DNA evidence. More than 360 individuals have been exonerated by postconviction DNA testing and released from prison and death row. The use of DNA testing to exonerate innocent prisoners has increased public recognition that the criminal justice system can convict the wrong people.

Are False Confessions Admissible in Court?

False confessions are not admissible in court. If a confession is found to be false, the judge will likely strike the statement from the records. False confessions cannot be used as evidence. The person making the false confession may be subjected to further penalties for lying in court.

The statement would not be admissible in court if a false confession were obtained through force or violence. Whether they are true or false, involuntary confessions are inadmissible.

How Can Someone Confess to a Crime They Didn’t Commit?

Many of the nation’s 360 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence involved a false confession. It is difficult to understand why a person would wrongly confess to a crime they did not commit. The following factors contribute to or cause false confessions:

  • Intimidation of the suspect by law enforcement
  • Use of force or threat of force by law enforcement during an interrogation
  • The suspect’s compromised reasoning ability due to exhaustion, hunger, stress, substance use, mental limitations, or limited education. Young people who do not understand their rights are particularly vulnerable
  • Devious interrogation techniques such as using untrue statements about incriminating evidence
  • Fear by the suspect that failure to confess will lead to a harsher punishment

A false confession is an admission followed by a crime narrative that the confessor did not commit. Researchers do not know how frequently false confessions occur. Meaningful incidence rates cannot be determined. Researchers cannot identify false confessions because no governmental or private organization tracks this information.

Even if one could identify a set of false confessions, it’s not usually possible to obtain the police reports, pretrial and trial transcripts, and electronic records of interrogations necessary to evaluate the reliability of these confessions. Even in disputed confession cases where researchers obtain primary case materials, it’s still challenging to determine what happened with enough certainty to prove the confession false. It is almost impossible to altogether remove any possible doubts about the confessor’s innocence.

What Are the Ways to Prove a Confession is False?

Social scientists have demonstrated that there are four ways to prove a confession is false:

  • When it can be established that the suspect confessed to a crime that did not happen (the presumed murder victim is found alive)
  • When it can be established that the defendant could not have committed the crime because it would have been physically impossible (in another state or location at the time)
  • When the true perpetrator of a crime is identified and found guilty
  • When scientific evidence conclusively establishes innocence (DNA testing)

Only a small number of false confessions contain evidence or circumstances that allow a confessor to prove their innocence without a doubt.

Who Are Vulnerable Suspects?

Psychological coercion is the primary cause of police-induced false confessions. Individuals differ in their ability to withstand interrogation pressure. Some people are more susceptible to making false confessions.

Those who are highly suggestible are more likely to make false confessions. Individuals who are highly suggestible tend to have poor memories, high anxiety, low self-esteem, and low levels of assertiveness or other personality factors that make them more vulnerable to the pressures of interrogation.

Interrogative suggestibility is heightened by sleep deprivation, fatigue, and drug or alcohol withdrawal. Individuals who make false confessions tend to be conflict-avoidant and eager to please others, especially authority figures.

Highly suggestible individuals are not the only ones who are vulnerable to the pressures of a police interrogation. The developmentally disabled or cognitively impaired, juveniles, and the mentall ill are more likely to confess for a variety of reasons. Subnormal intellectual functioning, low intelligence, short attention span, poor memory, poor conceptual skills and poor communication skills lead people to not always understand statements made to them. An individual may not fully understand the implications of their answers. Some lack the ability to think in a causal way about their actions. Individuals with limited intellectual intelligence may have limited social intelligence as well.

They may not fully comprehend the context or complexity of certain social situations, especially adversarial ones like police interrogations. Individuals may not understand that a police detective who appears to be friendly is really their adversary. They may not grasp the long-term consequences of making incriminating statements. These people are highly suggestible and easy to manipulate due to a lack of self-confidence, poor problem solving abilities, and their tendency to mask their cognitive deficits by looking to authority figures for cues to behavior. It is therefore easy for these individuals to agree with or repeat false, misleading, and incriminating statements.

What Happens if a Person is Caught Making a False Confession?

False confessions can be challenging to detect. Courts employ a variety of mechanisms to detect and deal with false confessions according to a set of rules known as “confession rules.” If a person is caught offering a false confession, the following consequences may occur:

  • Criminal charges: Depending on when and where the statement was made and to whom, the person making a false confession may be guilty of the additional crimes of:
  • Perjury
  • Lying to a police officer
  • Contempt: If the false confession causes a disruption in court proceedings or hinders cooperation with the opposite party, a judge may hold the confessor in contempt

False confessions are a serious obstruction of justice. They may result in fines and possible jail or prison time.

Do I Need a Lawyer for False Confessions?

If you are accused of making a false confession, consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer. A criminal defense attorney can help you defend your case in court. You should have an attorney present if you are subject to interrogation or questioning. Having a lawyer present can help prevent the occurrence of false confessions.