News 07.19.11

In His Own Words: Q&A With False Confession Expert Richard Leo

DNA exonerations have proven what many find impossible to believe – people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. In fact, false confessions and admissions contribute to about 25% of wrongful convictions in DNA exoneration cases. In Richard Leo’s book, “Police Interrogation and American Justice,” Leo examines how interrogations can elicit confessions from innocent people.

The Innocence Project In Print

asked Leo (left) to help explain what happens inside the interrogation room, how false confessions lead to wrongful convictions and how they can be prevented

Innocence Project in Print:

What happens during the interrogation process that could cause a person to falsely confess?

Richard Leo:

Interrogations are a two-step process – sticks and carrots. The first step is beating the suspect down psychologically. Then, after you move the person to a perception that there is no way out, the second step is to induce them to think that they’re better off confessing. The first step involves isolating the suspect, accusing them and cutting off their denials. Interrogators are trained to dominate the interaction and not let the suspect verbalize the words, “I did not do it. I am innocent.” At the heart of this first step is what researchers call “the evidence ploy.” Most people in America don’t know that police can lie about the existence of evidence, to say “We’ve got your fingerprints.” I cannot think of a single false confession case that didn’t involve lies

about evidence.


Do Miranda warnings help prevent false confessions?


Miranda Warnings were designed to protect someone’s free choice to participate in an interrogation. “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney.” When people hear that they don’t think, “I can shut down the interrogation.” They just think they’re being educated about their rights more broadly. If you’re of acertain education level or have lawyers in the family, you might know that police can trap you. But most people don’t know that. The impulse to talk when a police officer is accusing you is strong. We want to instinctively defend ourselves against false accusations. You could say “I would like to have a lawyer.” In theory, that should end the interrogation. Very few suspects actually say that, and usually when they have said that in the innocence cases, it was ignored.


Can you speak about how young people are especially vulnerable?


There’s great research from developmental psychology about why juveniles are more vulnerable to false confessions: they’re less mature, they’re more impulsive, they are more gullible and trustworthy, and they don’t think about long-term consequences. These are the same reasons why people with low IQs are vulnerable. But false confessors are not limited to these categories.


Can having the parents present during an interrogation be a protection?


I’ve always been skeptical about the idea of getting a guardian or parent in the room. Because the police make up evidence, and they tell the parents, “We have people saying he did this.” Then the parents are like, “Joe, stop lying. You need to tell the officer the truth.” So the parents become agents, oftentimes, of the police. Most parents just aren’t street smart.


Can you explain the investigators’ “presumption of guilt”?


A police interrogator’s goal is to build a case, not to separate out whether the suspect is likely innocent or likely guilty. There’s no hypothesis testing in interrogations. If we start thinking about more thorough ways to analyze whether the suspect is likely guilty or not, and maybe getting more evidence before we subject them to that interrogation, maybe police can prevent more false confessions.


What other reforms do you recommend?


Electronically recording the entire interrogation is the most important reform. Non-public details (that are not publicly known by anyone other than the true perpetrator and the police) can be intentionally or unintentionally imputed to the suspect. They make the confession seem persuasive. Recording captures the contamination process from start to finish. If a case were to go to trial, the defense attorney can show how the details never were known by the person being accused, and how they were fed at every step of the way.


Are interrogations ever good and necessary?


You need confessions to solve crimes, especially murder crimes, and as long as confessions are done fairly and legally, we’re absolutely in favor of the interrogations that produce them. We don’t want to undermine the ability of police, most of whom are good and decent people who follow the rules, to get these confessions. As long as you do things fairly and properly, it shouldn’t endanger the innocent.

This article originally appeared in the

Innocence Project in Print’s

Summer 2011 issue.

Read the full issue here


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