The Role of Police Interrogation Tactics in America’s Wrongful Conviction Problem

By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC’19)

Corpus delicti, meaning “body of the crime” in Latin, is a principle adopted by the American legal system requiring that the requisite elements of a crime be proven before an individual can be tried for a crime. This rule provides that a confession, standing alone, is not enough evidence for a conviction. Despite the design of this rule to prevent wrongful convictions, wrongful convictions are nevertheless still a common occurrence in America. More specifically, false confessions contribute to a large portion of wrongful convictions in America. In order to eradicate the false confession phenomenon, laws must be put in place to prohibit coercive police interrogation tactics.

In 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations reported a total of 139 exonerations, compared to 171 during the year before. In 2017, 29 of the exonerations involved false confessions. The surprisingly high number of false confessions reported each year is alarming, because false confessions are a difficult concept for most people to grasp. Why would an innocent person ever confess to a crime they did not commit? Why would someone confess without physical torture?

In 74 percent of false confession cases, official misconduct occurs. Police misconduct in many cases includes the use of threats, physical torture, and coercion. There are laws in place that place limitations on police interrogation tactics. However, even the legal tactics police use in interrogations are extremely coercive in nature and contribute to the high number of false confession cases.

Police officers read manuals and are taught effective techniques on how to extract confessions from uncooperative suspects. The Reid technique, a widely adopted program by police departments throughout America, includes nine steps of interrogation and four basic influence strategies: loss of control, social isolation, certainty of guilt, and minimization of culpability. The Reid technique methods are specific and include details on how to set up the interrogation room, how to respond to denials, and how to utilize effective nonverbal behavior that is conducive to receiving confessions.

In addition to this training, police are legally able to lie and use deception in the process of interrogation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on several cases—including as Oregon v. Mathiason—regarding psychological ploys, finding that tactics such as falsely claiming the suspect’s fingerprints were found at the crime scene are permissible. In the case of Thomas Sawyer, a golf-course groundskeeper whose neighbor was raped and murdered, police lied and told Sawyer he flunked the polygraph test. Sawyer was indeed innocent and suffered from anxiety and alcoholism. When police learned of his alcohol addiction, they insisted he committed the crime during an alcoholic blackout. Confronted with this information after a 16-hour interrogation, Sawyer falsely confessed, stating “I guess all the evidence is in, I guess I must have done it.”

Sawyer’s case exemplifies many wrongful conviction cases: a mentally ill and easily dominated person succumbs to the pressure to comply with the police in interrogation. In turn, that person faces criminal charges and extensive prison time.

The false confession phenomenon is problematic not just because it exploits innocent people, but also because it undermines police legitimacy and is costly for the criminal justice system. In addition to human costs, the state has to pay for innocent people to be in prison, often for very long periods of time. The Innocent Project reported that exonerated individuals serve an average of 14 years in prison before release. According to Vera Institute of Justice, incarceration costs an average of more than $31,000 per inmate, per year, nationwide. In some states, it costs more than $60,000 per year per inmate. On average, one wrongfully convicted individual will cost the state nearly $500,000.

It is in the best interest of all parties to eradicate false confessions and lower the number of wrongful convictions in America. In order for this to happen, police must adopt new methods of interrogation. Some countries, including England and Wales, restrict police behavior during interrogations via the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE). This act makes it illegal to trick suspects or lie about evidence as a means of inducing suspects to confess. This model could serve a beneficial role in America. If adopted, suspects would be at less risk to police coercion and wrongful convictions.

Interrogation reforms should not stop there. Some researchers have expressed concern for a lack of regulations outside the formal interrogation process as well, pointing to the continuation of practices such as the use of threats in “off the record” conversations, and feeding suspects information before the interrogation begins. For this reason, laws should be put in place to require complete video recording of all interrogations, time limits of interrogations, safeguards for vulnerable suspects—such as an appropriate adult accompanying a minor suspect—and the use of expert testimonies on interrogations and confessions to explain to jurors the sensitivity of interrogations and likelihood of coercive tactics. Police interrogation tactics must be reformed in order to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in America.

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