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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.

  • The Iowa State Bar Association
  • DUI Defense Law
  • AAJ
  • Iowa Association of Justice

Keegan, Tindal, & Mason 

Put Over 50 Years of Combined Trial Experience On Your Side 
  • J. Dean Keegan
  • Eric D. Tindal
  • Andrea D. Mason
  • J. Dean Keegan J. Dean Keegan


    Decades of Award-Winning Legal Service J. Dean Keegan was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa. After high school, Dean served ...
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  • Eric D. Tindal Eric D. Tindal


    Highly Rated Criminal Defense in Iowa City Eric D. Tindal, attorney at Keegan, Tindal & Mason, graduated from the University ...
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  • Andrea D. Mason Andrea D. Mason


    Experienced Criminal Defense in the Iowa and Illinois Quad Cities Andrea D. Mason practices in the areas of white collar ...
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  • Operating While Intoxicated Record Expunged

    Johnson OWCR106890. Attorney Dean Keegan's client received an Operating While Intoxicated, a serious misdemeanor. After reviewing the videos, Mr. Keegan filed a Motion to Suppress arguing the officer denied his client's right to make a phone call. The State declined to present testimony at the hearing and the Motion to Suppress was granted, making the client eligible for a deferred judgment. Mr. Keegan's client will have her record expunged and be able to obtain a license after 90 days instead of 180.

  • Drug Charge Charge Dismissed

    Johnson County No. OWCR039210, Iowa City, Iowa. Attorney J. Dean Keegan conducted a three-day long suppression hearing which presented the first challenge to the "Drug Recognition Protocols" used in Iowa.

  • Embezzlement No Criminal Charges Filed

    Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Iowa. An employee of a Cedar Rapids business accused of embezzling six million dollars was not charged criminally after the County Attorney agreed to abide by an agreement negotiated by Attorneys J. Dean Keegan and Jerald Kinnamon in which the accused would pay two million dollars to the company.

  • Vehicular Homicide Charge Dismissed

    Johnson County No. FECR058630- Iowa City, Iowa. Attorneys J. Dean Keegan and Jerald W. Kinnamon successfully challenged the withdrawal of blood from a Defendant without his permission after a rollover accident in which a passenger in the vehicle was killed.

  • Vehicular Homicide Charge Dismissed

    Muscatine County No. FECR03718 - Muscatine, Iowa. If convicted of the vehicular homicide while intoxicated, as alleged in this case, the Defendant would have faced the possibility of a 25-year prison sentence, 17 years of which would have to be served before he would be eligible for parole. Following the depositions of the investigating officer and consultation with an accident reconstruction expert, Attorneys J. Dean Keegan and Jerry Kinnamon negotiated the dismissal of Vehicular Homicide as part of a plea

  • OWI Charge Dismissed

    Johnson County No. OWCR083001 - Iowa City, Iowa. Attorney J. Dean Keegan alleged that the Defendant's rights to contact a lawyer or family member may have been violated after his arrest. He requested video of the breath test from the arresting officer to support his allegation. When the officer failed to produce the video evidence in response written requests, a subpoena, and a Motion to Compel, the State conceded the issue and dismissed the offense.

  • OWI Acquittal at Jury Trial

    Johnson County No. OWCR077717- Iowa City, Iowa. Acquittal at jury trial of a defendant accused of Operating While Intoxicated who refused a breath alcohol test. Tried by Attorney J, Dean Keegan.

  • OWI Case Overturned

    State v. Hornik, Segura, et. al.Iowa City, Johnson County, Iowa. When the state of Iowa established that the Datamaster breath testing machine could be used to test subjects being investigated for OWI, it failed to establish a protocol for its proper use. Attorney J. Dean Keegan, in conjunction with the Johnson County Public Defender's Office, mounted a challenge to the use of the machine based on the lack of uniform instructions for its operation.

  • Zero Tolerance Driver's License Revocation Zero Tolerance Driver's License Revocation Overt

    Iowa Dept. of Inspection and Appeals Docket No. 08DOTOW3937. Attorney J. Dean Keegan successfully challenged a "Zero Tolerance" license revocation on the basis that the officer had failed to allow the driver to contact a family member or attorney for legal advice before submitting to the test.

  • OWI 2nd Offense Charge Dismissed

    Muscatine County No. OWCR040280 - Muscatine, Iowa. After Attorney Dean Keegan scheduled the deposition of the State's expert witness in this case, he learned that the breath test was inappropriately administered by the arresting officer. The State dismissed the offense outright and agreed that the breath test result should be inadmissible so the Defendant would not face the proposed one-year administrative revocation of her driver's license.


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