False Confessions

The goal of any police interrogation is to get a confession. Police do not interrogate people they believe to be innocent. There is a long history of people confessing to committing crimes they did not commit. In Nebraska, one need look no further than the Beatrice 6 or the Mathew Livers case to see evidence that false confessions happen during interrogations.

Often, a criminal defendant will confess to a crime and later claim the confession was coerced. Because most custodial interrogations in Nebraska are recorded, it is easy to see how this happens. When a defendant denies that he committed an offense, he is often cut-off by the officer and told there is evidence that proves he committed the crime. Sadly police officers are allowed to lie during interrogations but suspects are not. A lie from a police officer during an interrogation is perfectly legal while if a suspect lies, he may be charged with providing false information or obstructing justice.

During interrogations, law enforcement often use a bait question. The bait question starts “what would you say if”:

  • there is a video recording of you committing the crime?
  • multiple witnesses have identified you as the person who committed the crime?
  • we have DNA evidence that you committed the criminal act?
  • we saw your bank records?

Once the suspect takes the bait and answers the question, prosecutors will argue that if the criminal defendant was innocent, he would have denied the allegation rather than try to explain away what happened. The response to the bait question is usually treated as an admission of guilt or a lie.

Prior to bait questions, police generally gather information and evaluate verbal and non-verbal responses to questions. While most of the time the information gathered is not a confession, it can corroborate law enforcement’s theory of the case. This corroboration of seemingly unimportant facts can be used to establish probable cause to arrest a suspect. The police questioning may establish that the defendant was at the location of the crime at the time the crime was committed. In some cases this will be sufficient for an arrest. More importantly, the answers to these questions may be used against the suspect during the interview to convince the suspect that no one will believe his story of what really happened.

While some police officers claim they can tell if a suspect is lying based on body language, that is not true. Additionally, polygraphs are not a search for a truth, but a confession. The polygraph allows police to interrogate a subject under stressful conditions. The polygraph results, whether favorable or not, are not admissible in court. However, the statements a defendant makes during a polygraph examination is admissible at trial as evidence against the defendant even though no mention of the word “polygraph” is allowed.

While many people thing that false confessions are only made by the weak and uneducated, that is also incorrect. Doctors, lawyers, and members of the military have all given false confessions.

The reasons for the false confessions are unique to each case but some themes have developed. For example, false confession interrogations are often contaminated with facts provided by law enforcement that are not true. Once the suspect believes that the lie he is being told is true, he is more susceptible to tell the cop what the cop wants to hear to minimize his criminal exposure.

In other instances, the suspect is a law abiding citizen who feels that he must give the cop the “correct “answers so that he does not face more severe consequences. In these instances, once the suspect denies or objects to the cop’s version of the truth, he is met with resistance and told not to lie or that lying will only make the situation worse. The law-abiding suspect does not want the cop to think he is a liar and acquiesces to the cop’s version of the truth.

Interrogations don’t have to take place. A suspect in a criminal case always has to right to have an attorney present during questioning and a right not to make incriminating statements. A citizen cannot be punished for asserting his constitutional rights even if the police officer does not like it.

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