False Confessions, False Truth

Statistics show that over 15% of wrongful convictions involved a false confession. When people care about their loved ones or have a psychological tendency to provide false information, it throws a case off and results in the wrong person getting penalized. When these situations arise, having a dedicated and affordable criminal defense lawyer is important to ensure that your rights are protected to the fullest extent possible.

There are several reasons why some people tend to make false confessions.

General False Confessions: Factors of Confessing

One reason why some people tend to make false confessions is that they are psychologically prone to believe that it will be easier or more advantageous to comply with police demands for a confession rather than maintain their innocence. In short, some people can just be more easily pressured into making up a false confession rather than maintaining what they know to be true.

Other factors such as intoxication, mental impairment or just lack of understanding of the law can also cause an innocent person to make a false confession. As they are not in the right state of mind to be making decisions or confessions, these factors will skew the truth.

Other factors are coercion or inducements.  Believing that harm will be inflicted on oneself or a loved one can be a powerful motivator to make a false confession.  Similarly, believing that one will receive a benefit can also be a powerful motivator to adopt a false confession or version of events.

The Reid Technique

The Reid Technique is a method of questioning suspects that have been widely used in the US and Canada in recent years.  First developed by a polygraph expert named John Reid, it is an accusatory interrogation that takes place in a 3-phase process.  The first phase is a Fact Analysis in which the investigator outlines the facts of the case with the suspect.  The next phase is a Behaviour Analysis Interview (BAI) in which the investigator conducts a non-accusatory interview designed to observe the suspect’s natural behaviour and reactions.  The final phase is a 9-Step Interrogation in which the investigator tells the suspect in a matter-of-fact monologue that the results of the investigation clearly indicate that he/she is guilty and then, in a patient, understanding and non-judgmental way, offers the suspect various ways in which to shift blame for why they committed the crime from themselves to some other person or set of circumstances.  The goal is to make the suspect gradually more comfortable with admitting their guilt.

At the heart of the Reid Technique is the “alternative question”.  An example of this type of question is, “Did you plan this out or did it just happen on the spur of the moment?”  As you can see, the question is based on an implicit admission of guilt. Although the suspect always has a third choice, which is to deny any involvement at all, the question and the circumstances in which it is asked can cause someone to falsely confess to something they did not do.

The Reid Technique’s nine steps of interrogation are:

1. Direct confrontation. Tell the suspect that the evidence has led the police to him/her and offer him/her an early opportunity to explain why the offense took place.

2. If the suspect does not confess immediately, try to shift the blame away from him/her to some other person or set of circumstances that prompted the suspect to commit the crime. In other words, provide psychological reasons that justify or excuse the crime to find one that the accused is most responsive towards.

3. As the interrogation progresses, try to minimize the frequency of the suspect’s denials.

4. At this point, the accused will often give a reason why he or she did not or could not commit the crime. Try to use this to move towards the acknowledgment of what they did.

5. Reinforce sincerity to ensure that the suspect is receptive.

6. The suspect will become quieter and listen. Move the theme discussion towards offering alternatives. If the suspect cries at this point, infer guilt.

7. Pose the “alternative question”, giving two choices for what happened; one more socially acceptable than the other. The suspect is expected to choose the easier option but whichever alternative the suspect chooses, guilt is admitted. As stated above, there is always a third option which is to maintain that they did not commit the crime.

8. Lead the suspect to repeat the admission of guilt in front of witnesses and develop corroborating information to establish the validity of the confession.

9. Document the suspect’s admission or confession and have him or her prepare a recorded statement (audio, video or written).

These confessions can be categorized into compliant confessions and internalized confessions. Compliant confessions are due to a specific reason, such as seeing it as the easier way out or expecting leniency in the situation. As for internalized confessions, often pressure points can be hit to a level where the accused begins to doubt their inner truth. If someone is susceptible to suggestion, the repetition of a situation may make someone feel like it really happened.

While the Reid Technique may be effective when it comes to catching criminals, its critics also point out that it too easily produces false confessions.

The Mr. Big Technique

The Mr. Big (or ” Canadian”) Technique is a covert investigation procedure used by undercover police to elicit confessions from suspects in cold cases (usually murder).  Developed by the RCMP in the 1990s, it works by having an undercover officer befriend a suspect and invite him/her to join a fictitious criminal organization. As the undercover officers build a relationship with the suspect and gain his/her confidence, they enlist his/her help in a succession of criminal acts (e.g., delivering goods, credit card scams, selling guns) for which payment is provided. Once the suspect has become enmeshed in the “gang”, he/she is persuaded to meet with the boss (Mr. Big) who tells the suspect that he has received incriminating information about the suspect from the police in relation to the cold case.  Sometimes, Mr. Big tells the suspect that the police are about to arrest him/her but he can help the suspect by covering it up or framing someone else (usually a terminally ill “gang” member) but only if the suspect provides details about the cold case. Sometimes, Mr. Big tells the suspect that he needs the suspect to provide details of the cold case as a sign of loyalty.  Regardless of the scenario, the final meeting with Mr. Big always occurs in a room which is surreptitiously audio- and video recorded.

The Mr. Big Technique has been used in more than 350 cases across Canada.  The RCMP claim that suspect was either cleared or charged in 75% of those cases and of the cases in which charges were laid, 95% resulted in a conviction.

Critics claim, however, that because it usually targets impoverished, socially isolated individuals and lavishes them with money and friendship, it can lead some people to make false confessions in order to hold onto a lifestyle that they would not otherwise be able to have.

When it comes to solving crime, it can be tricky. Call our team at (416) 363-3612 to get a criminal defense lawyer today.