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March 2009 - Interrogations and False Confessions: Social Science Confronts the Law

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Why would a criminal suspect confess to a crime he didn’t really commit? Does anything about the interrogation methods that police use induce some suspects to confess falsely? Should courts allow mental health professionals to tell juries why false confessions occur?

Law professors, psychiatrists, and psychologists addressed these and many other questions at "Interrogations and False Confessions: Social Science Confronts the Law," a symposium held April 18, 2009 at the College of Law. More than 170 students, attorneys, and mental health professionals attended the symposium, which was co-sponsored by UC College of Law's Glenn M. Weaver Institute of Law & Psychiatry and the UC College of Medicine.

Social science disciplines have clearly established that the powerful interrogation techniques used by police to get real bad guys to admit guilt can occasionally cause innocent people to confess falsely to crimes. As this knowledge has become widespread, defense attorneys have asked mental health experts to evaluate their clients and the circumstances under which they made incriminating statements to police. When the defense attempts to present these experts at trial, judges must determine whether to let juries hear their testimony.

As a result, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and mental health professionals who consult with courts need to know what the latest scientific research says about false confessions. They also need to know about the circumstances and interrogation techniques that increase the likelihood of false confessions, the ways that mental health experts evaluate defendants who may have confessed falsely, and the legal admissibility of testimony concerning these matters. The confession symposium featured four speakers whose research and clinical practice has made them experts in evaluating legal and psychological features of confessions.

Scott A. Bresler, a forensic psychologist and member of the psychiatry department of the UC College of Medicine, gave the symposium's opening presentation. Dr. Bresler showed the audience a video in which Nebraska police obtained a murder confession from a man who was later proven innocent when the real killers were caught and identified from physical evidence. Dr. Bresler used the video to illustrate the approaches, techniques, and assumptions that police use during custodial interviews.

Following Dr. Bresler was Mark Godsey, Professor of Law and Director of the Ohio Innocence Project at the law school. Professor Godsey described how the current status of confession evidence reflects a set of historical occurrences, legal developments, and new scientific knowledge about the impact and veracity of confessions. Ironically, said Professor Godsey, U.S. courts turned away from using the reliability of a confession to determine admissibility just when DNA evidence and social science studies started proving that false confessions occur more often than anyone had suspected.

The afternoon's third presentation came from Emily A. Keram, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine whose recent work has included evaluating Guantanamo Bay detainees and testifying about how interrogation tactics affected them. At the symposium, Dr. Keram focused on how mental health experts evaluate defendants’ statements using general scientific knowledge about confessions, specific factors related to police interviews, and specific factors related to the defendants= personal background.

To conclude the program, the audience members heard from Solomon M. Fulero, a psychologist and attorney who is professor of psychology at Sinclair College and an adjunct professor at the UC College of Law. Dr. Fulero reviewed key court decisions on the admissibility of mental health professionals’ testimony about false confessions, explaining why courts have found for or against admitting such expert evidence. Though he acknowledged existing arguments against admissibility, Dr. Fulero felt that scientific knowledge about false confessions had reached a level that warranted allowing experts to testify about the subject.

The science of false confessions has provided yet another basis for which courts and lawyers can expect to seek and use the expertise of mental health professionals. This year's confession symposium was the latest in the Weaver Institute's ongoing series of educational events aimed at preparing legal practitioners to understand and cope with current findings from psychiatry and psychology.

Agenda

3:00 p.m. — Law, Science, and Confession Evidence
Moderator: Douglas Mossman, M.D., Director, Weaver Institute, UC College of Law; Department of Psychiatry, UC College of Medicine
Orientation to the symposium, summary of topics covered, and explanation of evaluation procedures.

3:05 p.m. — Nuts & Bolts of Police Interrogation: Who, What, When, Where, & Why?
Scott Bresler, Ph.D., UC Department of Psychiatry, UC College of Medicine Dr. Bresler will explain the approaches and assumptions in custodial interviews, using video clips to illustrate various questioning-techniques.Objectives: By the end of this presentation, audience members will:

  • define the difference between a police interview and police interrogation
  • identify 2 assumptions that police interrogators make when they observe a suspect’s reactions to confrontation
  • describe 2 different techniques used by police interrogators and their stated purposes

3:50 p.m. — Evaluation of Confession Evidence
Emily A. Keram, M.D., University of California San Francisco School of Medicine
Dr. Keram’s presentation will describe how mental health experts evaluate defendants’ statements, taking into consideration general scientific knowledge about confessions, specific factors related to the interview, and specific factors related to the defendants’ personal background. Objectives: By the end of this presentation, audience members will:

  • describe scientific sources of scientific information on psychiatric aspects of law enforcement interrogations
  • describe 2 indicators of appropriate and inappropriate law enforcement interrogation methods
  • describe 2 indicators of valid and false confessions

4:35 p.m. — Break

4:50 p.m. — The Law of Expert Testimony on the Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions
Solomon M. Fulero, Ph.D., J.D., Sinclair College; Wright State University Dept. of Psychiatry
Whether testimony by mental health experts concerning false confessions should be admissible is the subject of ongoing debate within our nation’s courts. In his presentation, Dr. Fulero will review key court decisions on this topic, explaining reasons why courts have found for or against admitting such expert evidence. Objectives: By the end of this presentation, aided by Dr. Fulero’s handouts summarizing cases, audience members will:

  • explain 3 basic legal requisites for admissibility of expert testimony on interrogations and confessions
  • state 1 argument for and 1 argument against admissibility
  • state where to locate relevant legal cases concerning these matters

5:35 p.m. — Reliability Lost, False Confessions Found
Mark Godsey, J.D., UC College of Law
The current status of confession evidence in court reflects a set of historical occurrences, legal developments, and new scientific knowledge about the impact and veracity of confessions. Objectives: By the end of this presentation, Professor Godsey will enable audience members to explain:

  • historically, the reliability of a confession has been an important factor in determining its admissibility
  • until recently, courts and mental health professionals lacked good methods for demonstrating that false confessions occur or how often they occur
  • in 1986, just before the DNA evidence revolution, the Supreme Court (in Colorado v. Connelly) removed the “reliability rationale” from the admissibility requirements
  • just after Connelly was decided, DNA testing started proving that false confessions occur more often than anyone had suspected

6:20 p.m. — Adjournment & Course Evaluation

(View agenda and registration form)