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False confessions
A Fontana settlement sheds light on a serious forensic problem

Dr. Michael MacIntyre
May 2024

In the news this week:

Recently, the city of Fontana, Calif., settled a lawsuit with a man who falsely confessed to the murder of his father, who was still alive. The victim had a history of mental health challenges for which he was prescribed medication. The judge in the case commented that a reasonable juror would conclude that the investigators utilized "unconstitutional psychological torture" on the man to obtain the confession. Police obtained the confession after accusing the man of murdering his father (who was still alive), alleging evidence existed (such as his father being found in a morgue), and utilizing extreme coercion (including bringing in the victim's pet dog).

This case once again brings to light an unfortunate and complicated issue in criminal law—false confessions. False confessions may occur for a variety of reasons, though the vast majority occur in the context of interrogations.

Voluntary false confessions may occur for a variety of reasons. For example, a person with schizophrenia may have a delusional belief they committed the act. Someone with severe depression may feel extreme guilt and feel deserving of punishment, even if they did not commit a crime, leading them to confess to something they saw on the news. While the Supreme Court has held that a voluntary confession should not be thrown out due to a "mental condition, by itself and apart from its relation to official coercion," (Colorado v. Connelly), a person's mental state is still important for understanding the motivations behind a voluntary confession and determining if the defendant was susceptible to even slight coercion.

Compliant false confessions occur when one confesses to a crime they did not commit in response to coercion, stress, or pressure from police. One might do so to end a stressful and unpleasant interrogation or because they believe they will be in trouble regardless of the facts and cling to promises of leniency in exchange for a confession. Stress, police pressure, lies about evidence, and coercive threats may lead to compliant confessions. In the Fontana case, police went as far as to suggest the victim's dog may be euthanized.

Finally, a persuaded false confession may occur when the confessor doubts his or her own innocence. Interviewers may justify a lapse in interviewee's memory due to alcohol or drug use, a period of amnesia, posttraumatic stress disorder, or a psychological self-preservation to black out one's crime. Those with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, personality disorders, or psychotic disorders may be particularly vulnerable as they may have indeed experienced dissociative episodes or memory lapses earlier in their lives.

Often, the defense depends on a retracted confession, and the exclusion of a prior confession at trial. A forensic psychiatrist can help assess the mental state of a defendant at the time he or she confessed to a crime, shedding light into factors or vulnerabilities that may suggest a false confession. A forensic psychiatrist can assess for sources of distress during the time of an interrogation, the effect of that distress, and the individual's ability to tolerate distress and rationally understand the situation and consequences of behavior (i.e., confessing). Additionally, a forensic psychiatrist can help the trier of fact understand how the situation of the confession, such as sleep deprivation or pressure from police, impact a decision to confess. Forensic psychiatrists can utilize research on decision-making and social influence to help the trier of fact understand the total body of circumstances leading to a confession (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law). Experts can review records, the actual interrogation, and the defendant to understand the confluence of factors that may have led to a false confession. An expert can also comment on how the stressful circumstances of the interrogation may have contributed to adverse health and psychological injuries.

False confessions remain relevant. While understanding the numerous factors that go into one's decision to confess during interrogation can be complex, a thoughtful and experienced forensic psychiatrist can help the trier of fact understand a defendant's mental state, vulnerabilities, and decision-making.


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