(...) Compliant false confessions: Finally, the largest category of false confessions occurs when (even though the confessor knows he or she is innocent) they break down and give a confession to escape the interrogation process itself. [Kassin says the boys confessing to raping the Central Park Jogger are an example of this sort of confession. They were tried, found guilty in 1990 and imprisoned until the actual rapist confessed in 2002 and DNA evidence showed him to be the real perpetrator.]
But what could possibly happen in the interrogation process that would lead one to the point of confessing to, in many cases, heinous crimes? While there are certainly personality variables that play into false confessions, most people in the legal system (judges, attorneys and jurors) under-estimate the power of the situational forces acting upon police suspects. Even “normal” people without impairments that reduce resilience (like mental illness) can be worn down by an interrogation and give false confessions (Davis & Leo, 2012).
What an innocent (and many guilty) interrogation subject wants to do is to explain their innocence, and be reassured that their explanation is valid. The “wearing down process” in interrogation thwarts such attempts on the detainee’s part. Instead, the interrogation focuses on the detainee’s wish to be understood, but from the perspective of guilt: how they want to be seen as cooperative, how they want to share with the interrogator a less culpable sense that the detainee must have been caught up in the moment and behaved atypically. As part of this process, the interrogator reassures them that they will be seen as a better person if they cooperate, that the legal outcome could be improved if they confess, or tells the detainee that co-perpetrators, if any, are also being interrogated and that he or she may want to assign blame to them before they assign it to the detainee (Davis & Leo, 2012).
“They never even gave him a psych evaluation. Like they just kept battering him in the interrogation room and just on and on and on. I mean anybody is going to be mentally broke down or emotionally broken down after so long.”—Mock juror
If the interrogation process continues without food, drink or sleep, “a perfect storm of glucose depleting stress, fatigue and sleep deprivation” occurs. Even if offered food or drink, a detainee may be too anxious or overwhelmed to accept. This results in poor decision-making, cognitive decline and over-reactivity to stress (Davis & Leo, 2012). This experience [shared by detainees and soldiers] has been studied in combat situations and is also described as the “fog of war”.
The more depleted the detainee becomes, the less compelling the arguments of the interrogator need to be in order to persuade. Further, as they become more depleted, their ability to perceive manipulation by interrogators also declines. In this distorted environment, detainees are more likely to blindly see what the authorities are saying as a simple reality from which there is no escape (Wentzel, Tomczak & Herrmann, 2010).
Without a clear-headed act of will (which is undermined by the stress and circumstances of interrogation), the easiest path for a detainee is to do or say whatever must be said to make the interrogation stop (Davis & Leo, 2012).
Other researchers refer to the state of mind during a difficult interrogation as “interrogation myopia” (Scherr & Madon, 2011). When under the stress of the interrogation, all the detainee can “see” is the short-term situation in which they feel trapped. Their decisions are thus driven in-the-moment and not by their long-term interests. In academic research, when participants are falsely accused of having engaged in cheating–their ability to understand Miranda warnings was significantly lower than those not accused of cheating. Being falsely accused, which happens during the interrogation of those who falsely confess, causes tremendous stress and interferes with comprehension of the warnings meant to protect the innocent. The detainee simply doesn’t “hear” or understand the words being said to them. It all seems unreal since they know they are innocent and a horrible mistake is occurring.
Additionally, the expectation of a lengthy interrogation has been found to exacerbate the vulnerability of the detainee to make short-sighted decisions about confessing falsely to simply avoid the ongoing (and seemingly never-going-to-end) interrogation (Madon, Yang, Smalarz, Guyll & Scherr, 2012). This short-sightedness is thought to be particularly likely among innocent detainees as well as those with psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities. The innocent presume their innocence will prevail and that a false confession will be proven false in the long run and, in the short run, the interrogation will end. Those with psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities tend to be impulsive and that can also lead to a false confession due to the pressures felt in the interrogation room. http://www.thejuryexpert.com/2012/11/only-the-guilty-would-confess-to-crimes%E2%80%A8-understanding-the-mystery-of-false-confessions/