Several years ago, Netflix’s When They See Us made us revisit the case of the Exonerated Five, better known as the Central Park Five. We learned as five young Black men confessed to crimes they didn’t commit and even served six to 12 years of jail time despite their innocence.
So why do people confess to crimes they didn’t commit?
Psychological pressure may have something to do with this. According to Data from the Innocence Project, up to 360 cleared convictions involved a confession from an innocent person because of the following factors:
- Suspects feared that claiming innocence would result in harsher sentencing.
- Fear of force during question, or actual use of force.
- Age: young people are especially at risk of claiming the did something they were accused of because they want to appease authorities.
- Diminished capability to reason because of sleep deprivation, hunger, low education levels, belonging to a neurodiverse group, not speaking English as their native language, or substance misuse.
Many suspects or detained people also understand that DNA testing may prove they in fact, didn’t commit the crime, but it can take years to get results.
One reason why false confessions may so common is that police are taught to extract evidence using what is called the Reid method. In 1962, private detective John Reid came up with a method that is now typically taught to police.
The Reid technique is composed of nine steps, and emphasizes the need to lead a suspect into confessing something. Suspects have what are now called the Miranda rights. You may have heard, “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you.”
Miranda rights are meant to protect a person from self-incrimination, but fear, lack of understanding, or the desire to leave police presence may instead trigger a false confession.