Why Do Innocent People Confess to Crimes they Never Committed?

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Police interview

Police love confessions, because it often makes their job so much easier, especially if there is no strong evidence to prove that the suspect committed the crime.

A confession is often considered to be rock-solid evidence, but should it be?

If you have never been the subject of a police interview, you might wonder: why on earth would a person confess if they were innocent?

What could convince them to do that?

But many studies all over the world have found that false confessions are alarmingly common– with many dozens of people confessing to some infamous crimes.

One U.S. based organisation, the Innocence Project, has spread worldwide in a bid to acquit those wrongly convicted.

They found that in about 30% of cases where defendants were ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence, they had either ‘confessed’ to the crimes, pleaded guilty or made incriminating statements.

There are many reasons that may cause a totally innocent person to falsely confess.

Let’s look first at the coercive environment of the police station.


Once in police custody, you can be held there for up to four hours, and an extra four hours if an extension is granted.

But there are also other times which will not count towards the four hours, including the time it takes to get to the station, the time it takes for facilities to become available, or for your relatives or lawyer to come and so on.

These ‘time outs’ can significantly add to the time spent in custody.

Although it is your legal right, some officers do not encourage anyone in a police interview to contact a lawyer, or family members.

Being locked in a glass compartment in the custody area of a police station can take a mental toll on anyone.

And police have certainly been known to take advantage of this by telling people they can go home once they admit their guilt, or that a confession will make things a lot easier.

After several hours, this may sound very tempting to some who find themselves in that situation

Some people, particularly juveniles, may cave-in under the pressure and confess, even if they are innocent.

Now let’s take a look at police interview tactics.

The interview:

Research in Australia, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology has found that about half of the participants who were charged with a sexual offence had not even decided if they would plead guilty or not guilty before the interview.

This means that police have a huge role in influencing a suspect’s decision to confess.

And that power has been multiplied since the introduction of legislation that limits a person’s right to silence if they are charged with a serious offence and their lawyer is present at the police station.

That new law now keeps most lawyers out of police stations, much to the delight of police.

Studies have shown that coercive and intimidating interviews are more likely to make suspects lie and juveniles and mentally ill people in particular are far more vulnerable.

These groups of people are more likely to want to appease police and tell them what they want to hear.

Police can also use questions that confuse a suspect and ultimately break down their credibility.

If they can prove inconsistencies in what you say, you have already become less believable before you get in front of a court.

While not all police are so unscrupulous, some officers have even resorted to using physical violence, threatening to use violence, or even to charge members of their family in order to make a suspect confess.

Imagine being told that if you did not admit to a crime, police would come after your family too.

Many people would feel the need to protect their family, and are therefore tempted say ‘ok I did it’.

Plea bargaining:

Plea bargaining is where police may offer to drop some charges, or downgrade the seriousness of charges, in exchange for a guilty plea.

While in some cases this can be a win-win for the police and a guilty defendant, it can also be used by police to coerce a suspect into confessing.

Police may tell that if they confess now, they will ‘go easy’ on them, and if they refuse to admit guilt, they will face far more severe consequences.

A person may become convinced they will be convicted no matter what they do or say, so they are led into believing it will be better to just confess and receive a more lenient punishment.

If a person becomes convinced that police have a rock-solid case against them and they have no hope of being found innocent in court, they may be much more likely to make a confession, even if it is all untrue.

Officers may also explain that a guilty plea means a lighter sentence – which is true – but this should never be a reason for an innocent person to confess.

Such factors may create an extremely stressful and tense environment where a person being questioned is likely to end up feeling extremely nervous, perhaps even hopeless.

Suspects in a high pressure environment, uncertain what to do, may decide to confess, even if they had nothing to do with the crime they are charged with.

Click here to find out more about your rights during a police interview to ensure you are informed about the police interview process so that you don’t get taken advantage of.

Of course, refusing to answer police questions until you have spoken with a good criminal lawyer is not only your right; it’s also your smartest option.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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