Editor's note: Justice: Denied Magazine is pleased to present an article by Bruce Robinson on False Confessions. At a time when prosecutorial tactics are under fire because of the great number of innocent people our country imprisons, we may justifiably be wary of the growing subtlety of techniques to win confessions from the naive or unguarded person. In an effort to educate our readers about all areas of their rights, we hope to bring you more information about the law and your rights. Thanks to Bruce Robinson for his gracious permission to edit a fine, previously published, essay. --CATB

Under the right conditions, even you may be vulnerable to a false confession. Your memory can be twisted to believe something that never happened.


By Bruce A. Robinson

(Editor, Clara A. Thomas Boggs)

Police use of bright lights, rubber hoses and other physical methods to extract confessions was once common in North America. Court decisions since that time have rendered such confessions inadmissible, leading to the abandonment of such techniques. Trial judges have even rejected confessions obtained though threats of long sentences or promises of short sentences. Police now generally use psychological pressures, which may well be more effective.

Some modern methods include:

1. Feigned sympathy and friendship.
2. Appeals to God and religion.
3. Blaming the victim or an accomplice.
4. Placing the suspect in a soundproof, starkly furnished, room.
5. Approaching the suspect too closely for comfort.
6. Overstating or understating the seriousness of the offense and the magnitude of the charges.
7. Presenting exaggerated claims about the evidence.
8. Falsely claiming that another person has already confessed and implicated the suspect.
9. Other forms of trickery and deception.
10. Wearing a person down by a very long interview session.(1)

The result is that some individuals confess to crimes they did not do. Sometimes they even grow to believe that they are guilty.

Some police departments use a 1985 book, "Criminal Interrogation and Confessions," as a reference. It recommends isolating the suspect, and involving the suspect in possible crime scenarios. "An innocent person will remain steadfast in denying guilt."

Saul M. Kassin, professor of Psychology at Williams College, a leading researcher into false confessions, divides them into three categories:

1. Voluntary, involving no external pressure.
2. "Coerced-compliant" in which the person realizes he is not guilty but confesses to the crime to receive a promised reward or avoid an adverse penalty.
3. "Coerced-internalized" in which an innocent suspect is induced to believe he or she is guilty. 13

Police and courts often doubt that the second two cases actually exist.

Lab Experiment

Dr. Kassin and his student, Catherine L. Kiechel, designed a lab experiment demonstrating how innocent people can be led to a false confession, to the point that some may even become convinced they are guilty. (1,3) In the study, college students were asked to type letters on a keyboard as a researcher pronounced them. Some researchers read out the letters quickly (67 per minute), others slowly (47 per minute). The subjects were warned to not touch the ALT key, because a bug in the testing program would cause the computer to crash and lose all the data. One minute into the test, the computer was manually caused to crash. In half the tests, the researchers said they had actually seen the subject depressing the ALT key. At first, the subjects correctly denied hitting the key. The researcher then hand-wrote a confession and asked the subjects to sign it. The penalty would be an angry telephone call to the subject by Dr. Kassin. One hundred per cent of the subjects who had typed the letters quickly, and who were told by the researcher that they had been observed hitting the ALT key, signed the confession; 65% of the subjects believed they were guilty; 35% even confabulated non-existent details to fit their beliefs. Overall, 69% signed the note and 28% believed they were actually guilty.

Suspects who are Developmentally Handicapped

Richard Ofshe, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley has researched the effects of interrogation techniques. He said, "Mentally retarded people get through life by being accommodating whenever there is a disagreement. They've learned that they are often wrong; for them, agreeing is a way of surviving." Obtaining a confession from such people "is like taking candy from a baby." Florida lawyer Delores Norley has trained police in 30 states to handle interviews of developmentally handicapped suspects. She says they often have "an excessive desire to please ... This is especially true with authority figures." She and her colleagues are currently aware of some 100 cases of possibly false confessions by impaired defendants.

Some Examples of Apparently False Confessions

Perhaps the most famous recent case is Paul Ingram's, a police officer from Olympia, WA. He was subjected to 23 interrogations over five months of hypnotism and coercion by his church minister to confess, provided with graphic crime details, and influenced by a police psychologist who told him that sex offenders often repress memories of their crimes.

Ingram eventually confessed to sexually assaulting his two daughters, as well as to killing infants in Satanic rituals. No hard evidence was ever produced. Some evidence even proved that some of the accusations were false. The case became famous because it was the first instance of an individual confessing to Satanic Ritual Abuse in the U. S. Dr. Ofshe told Ingram that his children disclosed that he had forced them to engage in sexual activities with each other. The statement was false. Dr. Ofshe had invented the scenario as a test, and the children confirmed that it did not happen. Within days, Ingram generated false memories of the non-existent event and wrote out a confession. One unusual factor that facilitated Ingram's confession was his religious belief that Satan can cause a person to perform horrendous acts and then destroy the person's memory of the events. Ingram later came to realize that his memories were false, and attempted to change his plea to not guilty. This was denied. Ingram received a 20-year jail sentence and is currently imprisoned for crimes he did not commit and which probably never happened.

In 1979, Girvies Davis, aged 20, confessed to 11 crimes, including the murder of an 89-year-old man in Belleville, Illinois. Davis was an alcoholic with a childhood history of brain damage and suicide attempts. During his teen years, he was diagnosed with "organic brain dysfunction," which doctors believe was induced by a bicycle accident when he was 10 years old. They believe he falls within the "borderline range of intelligence." There was absolutely no evidence linking him to the murder other than the confession. Police say he freely gave the confession; Davis says it was coerced. The State of Illinois executed him on May 18, 1995.

The confession of Jessie Misskelley, Jr., convicted of participating in the sex-murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993, may well be false. He was 17 years old at the time of the confession, and has an IQ of 72 (vs. a normal value of 100). After the trial had ended, an independent investigator studied the autopsy photographs. He found images of bite marks on the face of one of the murder victims. Their pattern did not match Misskelley's teeth or those of the other two teenagers who were also convicted of the murders. One of the latter is on death row. Although a polygraph test indicated his innocence, Misskelley was interrogated for over 5 hours. He retracted his confession afterwards, claiming that he had caved in under police pressure. He pleaded not guilty at trial. An expert testified at the trial that Jessie was a prime candidate for a false confession because of his young age and low IQ. The Arkansas Supreme Court, in its ruling in this Memphis case, (4) outlined some of its criteria for determining the accuracy of the confession:

1. The "voluntariness" is judged on the basis of many factors, including: "the age, education and intelligence of the accused, the advice or lack of advice on constitutional rights, the length of detention, the repeated or prolonged nature of questioning, or the use of mental or physical punishment."
2. Confessions while in custody are assumed to be involuntary, and the burden is on the State to show that the confession was voluntarily made."
3. "A confession obtained through a false promise of reward or leniency is invalid."
4. "Youth alone [is] not sufficient to exclude confession."
5. A "low intelligence quotient alone will not render confession involuntary." 6. "Between the first time appellant was advised of his rights and the time he gave his first statement, a period of just over four hours elapsed, which was not undue..."
7. "The police may use some psychological tactics in eliciting a custodial statement."
8. "...where a person under age eighteen is charged as an adult in circuit court, failure to obtain a parent's signature on a waiver form does not render a confession inadmissible." 4

A series of large-scale, Multi-Victim/Multi-Offender (MVMO) cases surfaced in North America, starting in the early 1980's. Prosecutors alleged that numerous sexual and ritual abuse events occurred at pre-schools, church Sunday schools, and similar agencies. In those days, child psychologists, police investigators, and others were largely unaware of how easy it is to coax children to disclose details of sexual and ritual abuse events that never happened. All that is required is repeated, direct questioning by an adult. There are many examples of disclosures of non-existent abuse, leading to a community panic, mass trials of innocent adults, and eventual multi-million dollar lawsuits by those same adults. Bakersfield and Manhattan Beach, California were among the first places to spawn child abuse hoaxes. With luck, the recent sex ring hoax at Wenatchee, Washington will be the last.

Kathryn Lyon, lawyer and author of the Wenatchee Report, interviewed many of the defendants. (9) This report became the basis of a book. (10) She found that most of the accused adults agreed in their descriptions of police interview methods. They described long interrogations involving "deprivation of sleep, food or breaks, repeated, leading questions, use of threats, intimidation, and promises or incentives ... use of profanity, derision and name-calling, officers' unyielding expectation of guilt and refusal to accept contradictory information." She noted that some of the defendants' "confessions" were written with a "vocabulary or language patterns far beyond the mental capacity of the defendant."

About 45 adults, mostly women, were charged with offenses related to a number of interconnected sex rings. "All of the adults accused of being part of 'The Circle' were poor; many are illiterate, and some have been tested as significantly below average intelligence." Many were unable to afford to hire a competent lawyer. Some were named in thousands of first-degree rape counts of a child. It would appear that many took an Alford plea to avoid a certain guilty verdict at trial and many decades of imprisonment. In an Alford plea, the defendant maintains his innocence, but acknowledges he or she would probably be found guilty if there were a trial. It is the only practical option in many cases where a defendant cannot finance an effective defense. Most of the defendants who could afford a private lawyer were not found guilty at their trials. All those defendants who were too poor to hire a lawyer were found guilty, and sentenced to long prison terms. Many of the convicted have been freed by higher courts, largely through the efforts of The Innocence Project Northwest, a group of volunteer University of Washington law students, investigators and Seattle lawyers.


1. Saul M. Kassin (Professor of Psychology at Williams College), "The Psychology of Confession Evidence," American Psychologist, Vol. 52, No. 3.

2. Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 3rd Edition, Williams & Wilkins, 1986

3. Beth Azar, "Police tactics may border on coercion," APA Monitor, American Psychological Association, 1995, OCT. Reprinted at:

4. Decision by the Arizona Supreme Court. Available at: http://www.state.ar.us/supremecourt/opinions/

5. Gisli H. et al, "Retracted Confessions: Legal, Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects." Medical Science and Law 28: 187-194.

6. Kassin, Samuel, and Lawrence Wrightsman, "Untrue Confessions," TIME magazine, 1995, MAY 22, Volume 145, No. 21. Available at: http://pathfinder.com/@@VHkNaQYA0oxM9ueT
(Link no longer available).

7. "Coerced Confessions: The Logic of Seemingly Irrational Action." Cultic Studies Journal 6:1-15. A review of Girvies Davis' Clemency Home Page is at http://www.pointcom.com/reviews/database/1_09_010.html (Link no longer available).

8. Kathryn Lyon, "The Wenatchee Report" at: http://user.aol.com/DougHSkept/witchhunt/wen_report.txt

9. Kathryn Lyon, "'Witch Hunt': A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice." Avon, March 1998. You can read reviews or order this book from Amazon.com online bookstore A reviewer at Amazon.com wrote: "Kathy Lyon's book "Witch Hunt" has ripped open a festering lesion of Washington state abuses. This boil of corruption in the Washington state child care agency is rampant county by county, the same practiced behavior of social workers and detectives, therapist, judges, and state appointed attorney's involved in the Wenatchee cases are a practiced pattern in every county in the State."

10. "The power to harm: A record of abuses in Wenatchee," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998-FEB at:

11. "The Aftermath" (Updates to Ref. 11), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1998-FEB at: http://www.seattle-pi.com/powertoharm/aftermath.html

{Bruce Robinson is the Coordinator for The "Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance," a multi-faith group that promotes religious tolerance. Address: OCRT, Box 514, Wellesley Island, NY, 13640-0514. URL: http://www.religioustolerance.org}

There are a number of other related sections of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance's Internet web site which describe false accusations, false memories, and implanted memories.

To see a number of other related sections that describe false accusations, false memories, and implanted memories please go to the following essays on the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance web site:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/rmt.htm on recovered memory therapy
http://www.religioustolerance.org/sra.htm on the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax
http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra.htm on ritual abuse http://www.religioustolerance.org/child.htm on implantation of false memories in children
http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_case.htm on various MVMO cases involving allegations of ritual abuse.

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