False confessions: A serious threat in Iowa criminal cases

Research suggests that false confessions, along with invented personal memories of alleged crimes, may contribute to many wrongful convictions.

Many people in Iowa City imagine that, if they were wrongly accused of criminal activity, they would stubbornly defend their innocence. However, in reality, this is not always the case. It's not uncommon for wrongly accused people to incriminate themselves or give false confessions, even when they face serious charges, such as sexual assault or homicide. This is a risk that should be taken into account during any criminal case.

Causes of false confessions

The Innocence Project explains that false confessions play a role in many convictions that are later overturned based on DNA evidence. In fact, more than one-quarter of people who were exonerated on this basis originally gave false statements or made incriminating statements.

The reasons that people give false confessions can be varied. The Innocence Project identifies the following common underlying factors:

  • Impairment - people who are intoxicated, fatigued or mentally disabled are at greater risk for giving false confessions.
  • Fear or duress - some people confess out of fear of real or threatened violence, criminal sanctions or other consequences.
  • Lack of understanding - people who do not adequately understand the relevant laws or the situation may also give false confessions.

Alarmingly, new research suggests that some people who give false confessions may not even realize they are doing so. Instead, interrogation tactics may put people at risk for developing highly convincing false memories.

Fabricated memories of crimes

According to The Toronto Star, during a recent study, researchers recruited 70 students and interviewed them about past life events. Prior to the interviews, the researchers spoke with each participant's caretaker about a vivid event that occurred during the participant's adolescence. Equipped with these real-life details, the researchers asked participants to describe this event and a second, fabricated event.

Researchers mentioned only that the second event involved assault or brought the participants into contact with law enforcement authorities. The researchers told the participants that they would remember the event if they really tried. The researchers also suggested that participants use measures such as visualization to help them "remember."

Troublingly, after three interviews that lasted less than an hour each, over 70 percent of the participants "remembered" committing crimes. Many invented detailed memories that caused them to feel emotions such as guilt. Some even maintained that their memories were real after researchers explained that the "crime" never happened.

Prevalence of false confessions

These results are troubling, especially since the methods used in the study were very different from police interrogation tactics. The participants were not detained or questioned at length, and they were not forcefully accused of committing crimes. In the fact of such actions, it's possible that the risk of false memories and confessions may be even higher.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 12 people have been exonerated of criminal charges in Iowa since 1992. One of those individuals was convicted on the basis of a false confession as well as official misconduct. Still, the data from the Innocence Project suggests that the number of people wrongly imprisoned in Iowa due to false confessions may be much higher.

Seek legal help

These findings underscore why it is important for people facing criminal charges to seek legal advice. Without assistance, people who have been accused of crimes may be at risk for wrongly incriminating themselves or giving false confessions. An attorney may be able to help the criminally accused understand other options for addressing the charges that they face.

Keywords: false, confession, wrongful, conviction