Confession evidence is highly potent, and its incriminating effects are difficult to erase. This research paper describes the impact of confessions on jury verdicts, examines three concerns about the way in which juries evaluate confession evidence, and considers the steps that can be taken to ensure that jurors assess such evidence appropriately.
In cases where a confession is disputed, a judge determines the voluntariness and admissibility of the confession during a preliminary hearing. In the American criminal justice system, if a confession is deemed voluntary, it is then submitted for consideration to the jury. In some states, the jury is specially instructed to make an independent judgment of voluntariness and to disregard statements found to be coerced; in other states, the jury receives no such instruction. Either way, it is clear that jurors faced with evidence of a confession, and the defendant’s claim that it was false, must determine the credibility and weight of that evidence in reaching a verdict.
Mock jury studies have shown that confession evidence has a greater impact on jury decision making than other forms of human evidence, such as eyewitness identification and character testimony. Confessions are so difficult to overcome that mock jurors tend to trust them even when it is not legally and logically appropriate to do so. In a study that illustrates this point, Saul Kassin and his colleague presented mock jurors with one of three versions of a murder trial. In the low-pressure version, the defendant had confessed to the police immediately on questioning. In the high-pressure version, he was interrogated aggressively by a detective who waved his gun in a menacing manner at him. In the control version, there was no confession in evidence. Faced with the high-pressure confession, participants reasonably judged the statement to be involuntary and self-reported that it did not influence their decisions. Yet when it came to verdicts, this confession significantly boosted the conviction rate. This pattern appeared even in a situation in which subjects were specifically admonished by the judge to disregard confessions that they found to be coerced.
Criminal justice statistics reinforce the point that confessions tend to overwhelm other exculpatory evidence, resulting in a chain of negative legal consequences—from arrest through prosecution, conviction, and incarceration. Archival analyses of actual cases that contained confessions that were later proved false innocent have thus shown that when innocent confessors plead not guilty and proceed to trial, jury conviction rates range from 73% to 81%.
There are three bases for concern about the way in which juries can be expected to evaluate confession evidence in support of conviction. First, common-sense leads people to trust behaviors that do not appear to serve a person’s self-interest, such as confessions. Most people believe that they would never confess to a crime that they did not commit and do not expect that others would either. Indeed, in a wide range of contexts, social psychologists have found that in perceiving the behaviors of others, people tend to overestimate the influence of dispositions and underestimate the influence of situational factors—a phenomenon known as fundamental attribution error.
A second basis for concern is that people, including professional lie catchers, are not typically adept at distinguishing between truth and deception. For example, although it is common to assume that “I’d know a false confession if I saw one,” a recent study has shown that neither college students nor police investigators were able to differentiate between true and false confessions made by male prisoners. Hence, there is reason to believe that lay jurors would have difficulty in distinguishing between true and false confessions when presented as evidence.
Third, jurors do not typically see the corruptive process of interrogation by which confessions are elicited. In many cases of proven false confessions, the statements that were presented in court often contained accurate details about the crime, statements of motivation, apologies and expressions of remorse, and even corrections to errors that the suspects had supposedly identified. Typically presented with an oral, written, or taped confession but not the questioning that preceded it, however, jurors are not in a position to evaluate the source of these details. False confessions thus tend to appear voluntary and the product of personal knowledge, masking the coercive processes through which they were produced.
It is clear that additional safeguards are needed when confession evidence is presented in court. There are two possibilities in this regard. One is for trial courts to permit psychologists to testify as experts—a practice that is common but not uniform across states. The purpose of this testimony is to assist juries by informing them about the processes of interviewing and interrogation, the phenomenon of false confessions, the psychological factors that increase the risk of a defendant making a false confession, and other general principles (the purpose in these cases is not for the expert to render an opinion about a particular confession, a judgment that juries are supposed to make).
A second important mechanism is to ensure that judges and juries can observe the process by which confessions are produced by videotaping entire interrogations. A videotaping policy would have many advantages: The presence of a camera would deter interrogators from using highly coercive tactics, prevent frivolous defense claims of coercion, provide a full and accurate record of how the statement was produced, and perhaps even increase the fact-finding accuracy of judges, who must rule on voluntariness (they will observe for themselves the suspect’s physical and mental state, the conditions of custody, and the interrogation tactics that were used), and juries, who must render a verdict (they will see how the statement was taken and from whom the crime details originated).
Importantly, interrogations should be videotaped with an “equal focus” visual perspective, showing both the accused and the interrogators. In numerous studies, Daniel Lassiter and colleagues have found that lay people, juries, and even trial judges are more attuned to the situational factors that draw confessions when the interrogator is on camera than when the sole focus is on the suspect.
- Kassin, S. M., & Sukel, H. (1997). Coerced confessions and the jury: An experimental test of the “harmless error” rule. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 27—i6.
- Lassiter, G. D., Geers, A. L., Handley, I. M., Weiland, P. E., & Munhall, P. J. (2002). Videotaped confessions and interrogations: A change in camera perspective alters verdicts in simulated trials. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 867-874.