Why on earth, knowing the potential consequences, would someone confess to a crime they haven't committed?
Would it shock you to find out that 27% of homicide defendants who were later exonerated and listed on the National Registry of Exonerations confessed to the murder they were accused of committing?
Here are some of the reasons that scientists (and defense attorneys) believe that false confessions happen:
1. Mental illness
People with certain mental illnesses may have memory gaps or mix things they have heard with reality in unpredictable ways. When police drop details of a homicide during an interrogation, people with mental illness may start to believe in their own guilt.
2. Intellectual disabilities
People who suffer from intellectual disabilities may be easily suggestible. Some may even be eager to please their interrogators and under the impression (given by those same interrogators) that they will get to go home if they simply say what the police want to hear.
3. Aggressive interrogations
It's important to understand that false confessions would likely be dramatically minimized if the police were not as aggressive in their interrogation techniques -- especially toward those with intellectual disabilities or a history of mental illness.
One of the big ideas that some detectives will push on a defendant is the idea that it's easy enough to repress their memories of a bad event. They'll then encourage the defendants to relieve themselves of the burden of those repressed memories by acknowledging their guilt. Defendants can genuinely come to feel an emotional bond with their interrogators and start to believe that the police have their best interests at heart.
The problem of false confessions should alarm everyone -- and reinforce the idea that it's incredibly important to seek legal assistance when facing charges for a violent crime.