Techniques and Controversies in the Interrogation of Suspects:
The Artful Practice versus the Scientific Study
Allison D. Redlich
Policy Research Associates
Christian A. Meissner
University of Texas at El Paso
Redlich, A. D., & Meissner, C. A. (2009). Techniques and controversies in the interrogation of
suspects: The artful practice versus the scientific study. In J. Skeem et al.‟s (Eds.),
Psychological Science in the Courtroom: Controversies and Consensus (pp. 124-148).
Over the past decade, the topics of false confessions and police interrogations have received a
great deal of deserved attention, both from the scientific community (for reviews see Gudjonsson,
2003; Kassin, 2005; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004) and the popular press (e.g., Grisham, 2006). High
profile cases of proven false confession, such as the Michael Crowe and Joshua Treadway case,
provide tragic examples of the cracks--or sometimes gaping holes--in the criminal justice system.
Michael Crowe was 14 years old when his sister Stephanie was found murdered in their home. After
a total of nine hours of intense interrogation, which included several false evidence ploys (e.g.,
claims that he failed the infallible Computer Voice Stress Analyzer test, and that the victim had
Michael‟s hair in her hand), Michael succumbed to the pressure and falsely confessed. Joshua,
Michael‟s friend and believed co-perpetrator, was interrogated on tape for a total of 22 hours, and
eventually falsely confessed as well. Fortunately for Michael and Joshua, their innocence was
revealed when Stephanie‟s blood was discovered on the sweatshirt of a homeless drifter, Richard
Tuite, who was subsequently tried and convicted.
Cases such as Crowe‟s and Treadway‟s have been instrumental in furthering public
awareness regarding the influence of problematic interrogation techniques in leading to false
confessions and the inadequacy of current safeguards within the legal system that might otherwise
prevent such miscarriages of justice. As a result, psychologists are increasingly asked to provide
expert testimony on these topics in the courtroom (see Costanzo & Leo, 2007; Davis & Leo, 2006;
Fulero, 2004; Kassin, in press; Quintieri & Weiss, 2005).
In this chapter, we review three defining issues related to the interrogation of suspects by
police, addressing the controversies, the techniques employed, and the extant research. We then
discuss gaps in our knowledge germane to courtroom testimony and dispel common myths and
misconceptions. Throughout this chapter, we attempt to make clear the distinction between the
science comprising the expert witness‟ research/testimony and the artful practice of interrogation. In
disputed confession cases, triers of fact must weigh the research that supports the experts‟ testimony
against the legitimacy of the interrogation techniques that led to the alleged confession. It is in this
context we frame our discussion.
Police Interrogation: An Overview of the Techniques and Controversies
Contemporary interrogation techniques must be discussed in regard to false confessions,
particularly those that emanate from police pressure. There are several exemplary and comprehensive
reviews of police interrogation techniques and related research now available (Davis & O‟Donohue,
2003; Gudjonsson, 2003; Kassin, 2005; Lassiter, 2004; Leo, in press). By all accounts, contemporary
police interrogators utilize “psychology” in their efforts to obtain confessions (Inbau, Reid, Buckley,
& Jayne, 2001; Kassin, 2005; Leo, 1996; 2004). However, it is important not to mistake the process
of interrogation as a “science,” like psychology. Interrogators are not trained in, nor do they employ,
the scientific method, which generally involves the formulation and testing of hypotheses in support
of, or in an attempt to falsify, a general theory. We focus on three controversial aspects that highlight
the non-scientific nature of interrogation, namely (a) the detection of deception, (b) the presumption
of guilt, and (c) the techniques employed in real-world interrogations. As will become clear, these
aspects are intertwined. The interrogator‟s perceived ability to detect when suspects are deceitful is
the process that leads to perceptions of guilt, and to the interrogation techniques employed thereafter
(Meissner & Kassin, 2004). At the point of interrogation, this process of biased hypothesis testing on
the part of the interrogator can lead to the use of these other problematic tactics, such as confronting
suspects with guilt and disallowing denials, questioning suspects for long periods, presenting false
evidence, and minimizing responsibility. Such techniques were developed absent scientific inquiry or
verification that might allow for an assessment of their diagnostic value in extracting true confessions
of guilt. Below we introduce these concepts and controversies and then describe the psychological
research that has sought to address them.
An important distinction between Interviews and Interrogations is often made in manuals of
police interrogation (see Inbau et al., 2001; Chapter 1). During the Interview period (such as the
“Behavioral Analysis Interview”, or BAI, proposed by Inbau et al., 2001), the investigator is trained
to conduct a non-accusatorial interview to determine whether the person of interest is indeed “the
suspect” and should therefore be formally interrogated. A major part of this determination of guilt is
a reliance on non-verbal behavioral cues and analyses of linguistic styles that are believed to indicate
deception. For example, Reid and associates offer training in human lie detection that is purported to
increase the accuracy with which investigators can distinguish between truth and deceit to 85%
(http://www.reid.com). As we discuss below, research has not supported the theory that behaviors or
response styles reliably distinguish truth from deception, as opposed to nervousness, stress, or being
too hot, for example. Science has also not supported the notion that investigators are adept at
detecting deception in interviews, regardless of whether the suspect is guilty or innocent.
Presumption of Guilt
By definition, interrogations are guilt-presumptive processes – they are focused upon
extracting a confession by suspects who are believed to be guilty of the crime (Inbau et al., 2001;
Meissner & Kassin, 2002; 2004). As a result, some interrogators claim that they do not interrogate
innocent people (see Kassin, 2005). For example, Inbau and colleagues (2001) suggest that
interrogation procedures should only be applied against those found to be deceptive in a pre-
interrogation interview and thereby believed to be guilty of the crime. In presuming guilt, the
potential for “confirmation bias” is inherent (see below). Together, the use of questionable deception
detection techniques and a strong presumption of guilt on the part of the investigator can be
dangerous to innocent suspects, placing them at risk for the pressures of interrogation (Kassin 2005;
Meissner & Kassin, 2004).
Modern Interrogation Techniques
Throughout history, investigators have resorted to a wide variety of techniques intended to
breakdown a suspect‟s resistance and yield a confession. Interrogation techniques have evolved from
overtly coercive, “third degree” tactics (e.g., beatings, extreme sleep deprivation; see Leo, 2004) to
modern-day practices that involve more subtle, yet effective, psychologically based techniques. One
of the most heralded and widely cited procedures in the U.S. is known as the Reid Technique of
investigative interviewing. Other techniques often cited by law enforcement, including the Kinesic
Interview (Walters, 2003) and others (Butterfield, 2002; MacDonald & Michaud, 1992; Schafer &
Navarro, 2004) advocate essentially the same types of procedures for extracting a confession
(Narchet, Coffman, Russano, & Meissner, 2004). As Kassin and Gudjonsson (2004) summarize,
interrogations can be thought of as involving three general phases involving: (a) custody and
isolation, in which the suspect is detained in a small room and left to experience the anxiety,
insecurity, and uncertainty associated with police interrogation; (b) confrontation, in which the
suspect is presumed guilty and told (sometimes falsely) about the evidence against him/her, is
warned of the consequences associated with his/her guilt, and is prevented from denying his/her
involvement in the crime; and finally (c) minimization, in which a now sympathetic interrogator
attempts to gain the suspect‟s trust, offers the suspect face-saving excuses or justifications for the
crime, and implies more lenient consequences should the suspect provide a confession.
Reid interrogation techniques, among others, can be effective in eliciting true confessions
(e.g., see Leo, 1996; Russano et al., 2005) largely as a result of social influence processes that have
been shown to produce powerful effects in psychological studies of conformity (Asch, 1956),
obedience to authority (Milgram, 1974), and compliance to requests (Cialdini, 2001) – but could such
techniques also yield false confessions? Inbau et al. (2001) argue that innocent suspects will not be
compelled to confess with these methods, primarily due to the belief that such individuals are
excluded from interrogation based upon a successful pre-interview. However, there is no scientific
data supporting the effectiveness of interrogation procedures in eliciting diagnostic information from
a suspect (i.e., a greater likelihood of true vs. false information). In contrast, numerous researchers
have expressed concern that some of the techniques regularly employed by law enforcement may, in
fact, place innocent suspects, particularly those with identified risk factors, in jeopardy of making
false self-incriminating statements (Gudjonsson, 2003; Hartwig, Granhag, Stromwall, & Vrij, 2005;
Kassin, 2005; Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004; Meissner & Russano, 2003; Redlich, 2004).
Psychological Research Relevant to these Controversies
To be sure, police interrogation techniques can be successful in eliciting admissions of guilt
from true perpetrators, and it is unlikely that the use of such techniques produces more false than true
confessions (simply given the likely base rates associated with innocent vs. guilty suspects).
However, the overarching controversy associated with interrogation methods is that these techniques
can in fact lead to false confessions when employed on innocent suspects. While there has been a
notable surge in the frequency of false confessions discussed in the media, the actual rate of false
confessions is difficult, if not impossible, to determine (cf. Leo & Ofshe, 1998). Drizin and Leo
(2004) documented 125 cases of proven false confession in the U.S. since the 1966 Miranda v.
Arizona decision, while Davis and Leo (2006) cite more than 300 cases of false confession in the
literature. In essence, there are numerous compelling arguments for why the current number of
identified false confessions represents just the tip of the iceberg (see Drizin & Leo, 2004; Gross,
Jacoby, Matheson, Montgomery, & Patil, 2005). Below we review the psychological research that
has assessed the three controversies in police interrogation we outlined above and that are partly
responsible for this false confession phenomenon.
Research on Deception Detection Performance
More than three decades of research on deception detection (for reviews, see Bond &
DePaulo, 2006; Vrij, 2000) has produced a clear, consistent, and unequivocal pattern of findings: 1)
there is no one behavioral cue that is definitely indicative of deception, and 2) people (including law
enforcement) generally perform no better than chance at detecting deception. In regard to the first,
DePaulo, Lindsay, Malone, Muhlenbruck, Charlton, and Cooper (2003) quantitatively examined
1,338 estimates of 158 cues of deception (e.g., pressed lips, facial pleasantness, self-references)
across 120 independent studies, and determined that although there are some cues that associate with
deceit, these same cues also associate with anxiety and ambivalence, for example. DePaulo et al.
concluded that it is not yet possible to distinguish between behavioral cues that are the result of lying,
the result of being accused of lying, or simply the result of speaking in public. Further, Vrij, Mann,
and Fisher (2006) examined the efficacy of Reid and associates‟ BAI method (Inbau et al., 2001)
specifically in discerning the verbal and non-verbal behaviors of truth tellers from liars. In opposition
to what the BAI purports, Vrij et al. found that truth tellers were significantly more likely to provide
evasive answers, to cross their legs, and shift posture, and were less likely to name someone who did
not commit the crime than were liars. Thus, not only did Vrij et al. (2006) demonstrate that truth
tellers and liars shared many of the same behaviors, in some instances, truth tellers exhibited
behaviors the BAI attributes to liars!
The second consistent finding is that vast majority of studies have found accuracy rates to
approximate chance detection performance (Vrij, 2000), despite interrogation training claims of 85%
levels of accuracy when evaluating the deception of suspects. A recent meta-analysis of the literature
by Bond and DePaulo (2006) evidenced that, across studies, participants averaged 53% accuracy in
deception detection tasks. Even professionals who have to make daily decisions of whether people
are lying do not demonstrate high rates of accuracy when detecting deception (Meissner & Kassin,
2002; O‟Sullivan & Ekman, 2004). Indeed, training on typical interrogation deception detection
techniques has been shown to have a deleterious effect on accuracy (Kassin & Fong, 1999; Meissner
& Kassin, 2002; see also, Bond & DePaulo, 2006). That is, studies with college students and police
officers found that trained participants were less accurate than naïve participants, but were
nevertheless significantly more confident in their abilities to detect deception.
In sum, most, if not all, of the available evidence suggests that interrogators who place
weight on non-verbal and linguistic cues as indicators of deceit are prone to error. There are
numerous examples of proven false confessions in which these supposed clues of deception were
misread. For example, police viewed Michael Crowe as “inappropriately bereaved” (Hansen, 1999)
upon first impression. This determination of deception led investigators into a process of behavioral
confirmation in which multiple psychologically coercive interrogation techniques were used to
extract a confession from Crowe – a confession that was eventually deemed to be false with the
apprehension and conviction of the true perpetrator.
Research on the Presumption of Guilt
Presumptions during forensic interviews of any kind can lead to obstructions in truth
gathering. Investigator bias (aka „tunnel vision‟) is believed to play a significant role in the process
leading to the false confession phenomenon (see Meissner & Kassin, 2004) in that it may initiate
confirmation bias, the phenomenon in which information that is consistent with one‟s hypothesis or
expectations is given credence, whereas information that is inconsistent is discounted, ignored, or
actively re-interpreted to be consistent with the hypothesis (Darley & Fazio, 1980; Nickerson, 1998).
In a series of studies, Kassin, Meissner, and colleagues (Kassin & Fong, 1999; Kassin,
Meissner, & Norwick, 2005; Kassin et al., 2003; Meissner & Kassin, 2002, 2004) have demonstrated
how training in deception detection can lead police officers and others to produce a bias in their
perception of deception or guilt on the part of suspects, and in turn how this bias can trigger a guilt
presumptive interrogation process. First, Meissner and Kassin (2002) demonstrated that, in
comparison to untrained college students, both students trained in the use of verbal and nonverbal
deception cues and police investigators with significant experience in interviewing suspects were
more likely to demonstrate a bias towards perceiving deception on the part of suspects, regardless of
the veracity of their claims. Second, Kassin et al. (2005) found that police investigators were also
more likely to demonstrate a bias towards perceiving guilt in true and false confession statements of
actual inmates when compared with student participants. Thus, it appears that 1) police investigators
are biased towards viewing suspects as deceptive, and 2) that this bias towards deception is uni-
directional in that suspects perceived as lying are also perceived to be guilty rather than innocent (see
also Meissner & Kassin, 2004). In the end then, the pivotal decision of whether or not to interrogate a
suspect is based upon prejudgments of guilt that are confidently made but biased toward guilt and
frequently in error.
What impact does an investigative bias have on the process of interrogation? Kassin et al.
(2003) sought to examine this question by manipulating participant-interrogators‟ expectations of
guilt prior to a forensic interview. Those with expectations of “guilt” conducted longer
interrogations, used more interrogation techniques, and were more likely to ask guilt-presumptive
questions and to perceive suspects as guilty (even though half of the suspects were innocent). In turn,
suspects that were paired with interrogators in the guilt-expectation-condition appeared more
defensive to neutral observers, leading these observers to view suspects as significantly more guilty
than suspects paired with interrogators in the innocent-expectation-condition. This pattern was found
regardless of the suspects‟ actual guilt or innocence. Similar patterns of confirmation bias to the
exclusion of contradictory evidence are apparent in many false confession cases, such as Peter Reilly
and Billy Wayne Cope.
In summary, the extant research on deception detection and presumptions of guilt in
interrogation settings suggests that use of this two-pronged approach can lead innocent individuals to
be perceived as “guilty” and thereby subjected to the pressures of a guilt-presumptive interrogation.
Once inside the interrogation room, individuals are faced with psychologically based interrogation
techniques that are believed to be reliably effective in yielding “true” confession evidence. If
innocent, such a process of investigative bias can place individuals at risk for providing false
confessions (see Kassin, 2005).
Research on Police Interrogation Techniques and False Confessions
The range of interrogation techniques and approaches advocated within the criminal justice
community (e.g., Inbau et al., 2001; Walters, 2003) are frequently based upon the authors‟ many
years of experience as police investigators and the conduct of hundreds (if not thousands) of
interrogations. It is important to note, however, that these techniques have never been subject to any
scientific evaluation by the authors/users. Nevertheless, the increase in identified false confessions
within our criminal justice system has spawned a great deal of scientific research evaluating the role
of modern day interrogation practices in this phenomenon.
Two broad methods have been employed to study the impact of interrogation techniques,
namely field/archival research and laboratory research. First, field/archival research has included
individual case studies (e.g., Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1990), archival analyses of actual case
documents (e.g., Leo & Ofshe, 1998; Drizin & Leo, 2004), observations of live or taped
interrogations (e.g., Moston, Stephenson, & Williamson, 1992; Ofshe & Leo, 1997), and surveys of
police investigators (e.g., Kassin et al., in press). One notable example involves a study by Leo
(1996) in which he observed over 300 live and videotaped interrogations documenting the techniques
employed by investigators. Leo found that interrogators tended to employ the psychologically
oriented techniques found in traditional training manuals, but seldom resorted to tactics courts have
deemed coercive, including explicit threats and physical intimidation.
The second research methodology utilized is experimental laboratory research methods. In an
effort to extend both internal and external validity, Russano, Meissner, Narchet, and Kassin (2005)
developed a novel laboratory paradigm to assess the effects of interrogation techniques on the
likelihood of both true and false confessions. In this paradigm, participants in the “guilty” condition
are enticed by a confederate to share information on a problem they are both solving – an act that
violates the experimental rule against sharing information and that is later characterized as “cheating”
by the experimenter. Participants in the “innocent” condition perform the same problems with a
confederate, but these participants are never enticed to share information. Later, all participants are
accused of cheating (with the academic implications thereof), are interrogated by an experimenter
who remains blind to the participants‟ actual guilt-innocence, and are asked to sign a confession
statement. Russano and colleagues varied the interrogation techniques used by their experimenters to
include the presentation of an explicit offer of leniency (a “deal”) and exposure to minimization
tactics (i.e., the interrogator expressed sympathy, provided face-saving excuses, and emphasized the
importance of cooperation). Results indicated that guilty participants (72%) were significantly more
likely to confess than innocent participants (20%); however the use of interrogation techniques
generally increased both true and false confession rates. For example, an explicit offer of leniency
increased true confessions by a factor of 1.57 and increased false confessions by a factor of 2.33
when compared with the no-tactic control condition. Similarly, the use of minimization techniques
increased true confessions by a factor of 1.76, while also increasing false confessions by a factor of
3.00. When these tactics were combined, true and false confessions increased by factors of 1.89 and
Taken together, it appears that the interrogation techniques advocated by professionals within
the field (e.g., Inbau et al., 2001; Walters, 2003) often produce true confessions by guilty suspects,
but simultaneously increase the risk of false confessions by innocent individuals who are subjected to
these same procedures. Is it true that the use of “pre-interrogation interviews” established by the
advocates of these procedures will safeguard the likelihood that innocent individuals will be subject
to a guilt-presumptive interrogation? Actually, the contrary may be more likely – namely, that
innocent individuals will find themselves assessed as deceptive, and thereby guilty, during the course
of a pre-interrogation interview, and that this investigative bias will lead investigators to conduct
long, aggressive, and guilt-presumptive interrogations in search of the “truth.” Furthermore, the
available psychological research suggests that the techniques advocated by Inbau et al. (2001),
among others, are not diagnostic in their extraction of information. Rather, scientific research has
demonstrated these techniques increase the likelihood of both true and false confessions.
In addition to the body of scientific research investigating the techniques that generate
confessions (either true or false), there is a growing body of research on factors specific to suspects
that can lead to statements against oneself. Results from field and laboratory research converge on
the identification of several risk factors, most notably young age and mental impairment
(Gudjonsson, 2003; Owen-Kostelnik, Reppucci, & Meyer, 2006; Redlich, in press). Juveniles are
overrepresented in proven false confession cases (Drizin & Leo, 2004) and in one laboratory study
were found to be significantly more likely than adults to sign false confession statements (Redlich &
Goodman, 2003). Mental impairment--both intellectual/developmental deficits (Perske, 1991) and
mental illness (Redlich, 2004)--is present in a significant minority of false confession cases, and is
positively associated with suggestibility and negatively associated with understanding and
appreciation of the Miranda warning and requirements pertaining to adjudicative competence
(Everington & Fulero, 1995; Hoge, Poythress, Bonnie, Monahan, Eisenberg, & Feucht-Haviar, 1997;
Viljoen, Roesch, & Zapf, 2002).
In response to this overrepresentation of juveniles and persons with mental impairment in
false confessions, John E. Reid and Associates personnel recently recommended that “every
interrogator must exercise extreme caution and care when interviewing or interrogating a juvenile or
person who is mentally impaired” (www.reid.com). Whether this recommendation is known in the
interrogator community or if known, is heeded, has not been examined. However, it is important to
note that there is a strong and consistent research base indicating that the majority (e.g., 65% or
more) of justice-involved juveniles have mental health problems, most of whom have co-occurring
substance use issues (see Redlich, in press; Redlich & Drizin, 2007). Thus, many of the juveniles
who encounter police officers are likely to have the two primary risk factors for false confession;
whether the combination of these two factors cumulatively or exponentially increases the risk is
worthy of future research.
Gaps in Scientific Knowledge
Current scientific knowledge regarding police interrogations and false confessions has greatly
increased over the past decade. Innovative laboratory and field studies have highlighted the potential
dangers of using certain interrogation techniques (e.g., Drizin & Leo, 2004; Gudjonsson, 2003;
Kassin, 2005; Russano et al., 2005), and using them with certain vulnerable populations (e.g., Owen-
Kostelnik et al., 2006; Redlich, in press). Despite this boon of research, there remain gaps. Below we
discuss issues that researchers studying interrogations and confessions may find beneficial to direct
Future Research on Deception Detection
As described above, there is ample research indicating that individuals, even experienced
investigators, perform at chance levels when making determinations of truthfulness. However, what
is less clear is how often interrogators rely solely on their perceptions of the suspect based upon a
pre-interrogation interview when determining guilt, as opposed to incorporating corroborative
evidence of guilt in such assessments. Although these “clues to deception” (MacDonald & Michaud,
1992) are included in interrogation training manuals, the frequency with which behavioral analyses
are relied upon is unknown. Research examining the “value-added” nature of relying upon available
evidence for determining veracity in the context of an investigative interview would appear
worthwhile, though one must be certain to distinguish between evidence that is highly diagnostic
(e.g., a DNA match) and that which is largely circumstantial in nature (e.g., an apparent motive).
A second area of deception detection that would appear worthy of further research regards
the development of evidenced-based techniques that could improve the ability of investigators to
distinguish truth from deception. Current research in the deception literature suggests that verbal cues
to deception may prove more diagnostic than that of non-verbal behavior (DePaulo et al., 2003).
Techniques such as Statement Validity Analysis (SVA; see Kohnken, 2004; Vrij, 2005) and reality
monitoring (see Sporer, 2004) show promise in this regard for evaluating the structural and cognitive
components of an individual‟s verbal statement. In brief, SVA is an analysis utilizing a set of criteria
purported to distinguish between credible and non-credible reports. A number of important issues,
however, prevent the immediate application of these techniques for use by law enforcement,
including the reliability of coding statements, the training of coders, and the establishment of cut-off
standards for determining the likely veracity of a given statement.
Future Research on the Presumption of Guilt
Consistent with research directions in the detection of deception, it will be important to gain a
better understanding of factors that lead investigators to demonstrate a bias towards perceiving
deception or guilt on the part of suspects. Although studies have now suggested that both
investigators‟ experience in law enforcement and their training in methods of deception detection are
associated with the observed investigative biases (cf. Kassin et al., 2005; Meissner & Kassin, 2002),
and with the use of certain interrogation tactics (Kassin et al., in press), these associations fail to
capture the precise psychological mechanisms leading to such biases in the perception of suspects.
For example, it is possible that investigators‟ “base rates” of interviewing deceptive individuals are
different than that of the average population, thereby distinguishing the deception biases in
investigators from that of truth biases shown in normal populations (Vrij, 2000). Furthermore, it
would seem important to understand the manner in which investigators might designate an individual
to be a “suspect” aside from a finding of deception in a pre-interrogation interview. What types of
evidence might justify such a designation and lead an investigator to pursue an individual as a
suspect, and how might such evidence influence the process of interrogation?
Future Research on Police Interrogation Techniques and False Confessions
Much of the research to date on interrogation tactics has focused on factors that might be
associated with a risk of false confessions. The paradigm introduced by Russano and colleagues
(2005), however, provides researchers with an opportunity to address a critical issue in the study of
interrogations and confessions. Namely, the paradigm permits researchers to estimate the diagnostic
value of confession evidence that is produced by a given interrogation technique (or set of
techniques) by estimating the influence on both true and false confessions. To this end, researchers
can pursue the development techniques that might improve the diagnostic value of an interrogation,
thereby producing evidenced-based techniques that can be advocated to law enforcement. We believe
such a direction in research is vitally important if we are to shape the art of interrogation into the
science of investigative interviewing.
In a similar vein, much of what has been gleaned from the study of false confessions has
concerned police-coerced confessions. The overwhelming majority of false confessions in the Drizin
and Leo (2004) sample were of this form, in that the police induced the confessions via coercion and
inappropriate interrogation techniques (e.g., overly long interrogations, presentation of false
evidence). Whether what has been learned is applicable to voluntary false confessions – a form
which is likely to be more prevalent than coerced (see Gudjonsson, Sigurdsson & Einarsson, 2004) –
has yet to be investigated. Additionally, most (92% in Drizin & Leo, 2004) proven false confessions
have involved murder and rape – two very serious crimes with low base rates of occurrence. False
confessions for property, drug, and minor crimes are less likely to be detected (particularly via DNA
exoneration), but may be more prevalent (e.g., Sigurdsson & Gudjonsson, 1996). Thus, knowledge is
lacking regarding both voluntary false confessions and those offered for low severity crimes.
Finally, knowledge concerning the dispositional vulnerability factors associated with false
confessions is incomplete. Although scientists have clearly identified risk factors including young
age, mental illness, and low intellect, there are several open questions. For example, mental illness is
a catch-all term representing a variety of disorders with distinct symptoms and trajectories. Whether
persons with schizophrenia are more or less likely to falsely confess in comparison to persons with
major depression, for example, is not yet known. Further, an increased understanding of the effects of
multiple risk factors, both situational and dispositional, is needed. Certain combinations of risk
factors may be more predictive of false admissions than others.
Myths and Misconceptions
There are numerous erroneously held beliefs about police interrogation practices and false
confessions, as well as about the study of these topics. Below, we discuss five misconceptions that
commonly arise in the context of expert courtroom testimony.
Myth/Misconception 1: False confessions do not exist or are exceedingly rare.
As discussed previously, numerous cases of false confession have been identified with a
recent report by Davis and Leo (2006) citing more than 300 documented instances. Furthermore,
police investigators have themselves reported that false confessions from the innocent occur an
estimated 5% of the time (Kassin et al., in press). It is therefore clearly a myth that false confessions
do not exist. In contrast, believing them to be exceedingly rare is more of a misconception. Although
scientists are unable to estimate the precise frequency with which true versus false confessions occur
in the real world, most experts agree that the number documented to date represents the tip of a much
larger iceberg (Drizin & Leo, 2004). As described above, voluntary false confessions and those
offered for lower-severity crimes (than murder and rape) have not been well researched or
documented, and it may well be the case that false confessions under such situations are even more
likely than those for more severe crimes. Moreover, whereas DNA evidence has played a significant
role in the exonerations of innocent individuals who were convicted (another limiting factor), DNA
evidence is not available in a much larger pool of cases.
Myth/Misconception 2: Only “vulnerable” individuals falsely confess.
There are many proven false confession cases in which the false confessor had no readily
observable dispositional risk factor, such as low intellect or young age (see Drizin & Leo, 2004;
Gross et al., 2005). Of course, while it is certainly possible that these proven false confessors had
more subtle dispositional risk factors that were not identified, often times, it is the situational factors
present, such as investigator tunnel vision, lengthy interrogations, prolonged isolation, and lack of
sleep, that make a seemingly “normal” person vulnerable to false confession. Many proven false
confessions are the result of the innocent suspect being wrongly targeted and then subjected to
coercive interrogation techniques. Christopher Ochoa is one such example. Ochoa, now an attorney,
spent more than 12 years in prison for a rape and murder he did commit. After going to the Pizza Hut
where the crime had occurred some weeks before, the police became focused on Ochoa (and his
friend who was also wrongly convicted) and subjected him to two 12-hour interrogations telling him
he would face the death penalty if he did not admit to the crime. Ochoa falsely confessed, signing a
statement written by the interrogators. Although we are not aware of a psychological evaluation
performed on Ochoa, the abusive circumstances of his interrogation clearly contributed to his false
confession, and subsequent false conviction. The literature has many examples like Ochoa‟s.
It should also be made clear to judges and juries that an overrepresentation of juveniles, for
example, in false confession cases is relative to the number of juveniles in the criminal justice
system, not to the number in proven cases. That is, 32% of proven false confessors in the Drizin and
Leo (2004) study were younger than 18 years, meaning that the majority (68%) were adults. The
over-representation of 32% should be compared to the base rates of 8% of juvenile arrests for murder
and 16% for rape (Snyder, in press).
Myth/Misconception 3: The study of police interrogation and false confessions is in its infancy.
Decades of research have been dedicated to understanding the psychological factors leading
to true vs. false confessions. Gisli Gudjonsson published his first review of the field in 1992, while
his most recent update in Handbook form was published in 2003. Other reviews of the field and its
research efforts have abounded (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004), including books by DeClue (2005),
Lassiter (2004), Leo (in press), Milne and Bull (1999), White (2003), and Williamson (2005).
Furthermore, the scope of interrogation and confession research is not limited to studies that
have directly addressed the topic. As discussed by Kassin (in press), experts have a large body of
scientific knowledge to draw from, representing a three-tiered pyramid. At the base of the pyramid
are core principles of psychology, such as how people respond to influence tactics (e.g., Cialdini,
2001), how people make decisions under stress, in isolation, or when sleep deprived, the fallibility of
human memory and proneness to suggestibility, developmental trajectories, psychiatric symptoms,
cognitive functioning, etc. In the middle of the pyramid are research studies specific to police
interrogation, deception detection, and false confessions (e.g., Russano et al., 2005). At the vertex of
the pyramid are single and aggregated case studies of proven and probably false confessions (Drizin
& Leo, 2004; Leo & Ofshe, 1998) that demonstrate common patterns. In sum, in disputed confession
cases, there is more than 100 years of psychological science to draw on, including literature from
developmental, cognitive, social, personality, forensic, and abnormal psychology.
Myth/Misconception 4: Jurors do not „need‟ expert testimony.
When judges determine the admissibility of expert testimony, they often consider whether the
expert‟s information is necessary for the jury to render a fair and impartial decision. In other words,
does the jury “already know” the information that the expert has to offer? Is it a matter of common
sense? Can jurors on their own recognize coerced and/or false confessions? There is a wealth of
research to indicate that juries heavily value confession evidence--even when inappropriate to do so--
and are subject to biases of human nature, such as Belief in a Just World (Lerner, 1980) and the
Fundamental Attribution Error (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). There is converging empirical evidence
that jurors find it difficult to ignore confessions in decisions of guilt (Kassin & Neumann, 1997;
Kassin & Sukel, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1980). Similar patterns of results have also emerged in
studies examining confession evidence from juvenile suspects (Redlich, Ghetti, & Quas, in press;
Redlich, Quas, & Ghetti, in press).
Further, as discussed above, individuals are poor at distinguishing between true and false
confessions (Kassin et al., 2005). Indeed, among proven false confessors who chose to go before a
jury (Drizin & Leo, 2004), 81% were convicted (an additional 11% of false confessors pled guilty
prior to trial despite their actual innocence). Because it would appear that neither police investigators
nor potential jurors are likely to serves as safeguards in recognizing coerced or false confessions
(Kassin et al., 2005), the testimony of scientific experts becomes that more essential.
Myth/Misconception 5: Police Interrogation is a Science
A point we have tried to make explicit throughout the present chapter is that interrogation is
more akin to an art than a science (see also Leo, 2004). We believe this is important to understand
from two perspectives. First, modern day interrogation techniques were not developed through a
process of scientific inquiry – rather, they are the product of interrogative “experience” and the
observations of their proponents. As a result, the body of science that has now evaluated these
methods has indicated their failures in leading to diagnostic confession evidence, and most
importantly their contributions to cases of wrongful conviction. Second, the process of interrogation,
as conducted by investigators, lacks that of a scientific process seeking to test hypotheses and
assessing the validity of theories regarding human behavior. Rather, the interrogative process as
conducted by investigators is often fraught with biases and a search for confirmation that often
excludes, ignores, or reinterprets disconfirming evidence. This is important because 1) the authority
of the expert and his/her information is often informally compared to the authority and experience of
the interrogator, and 2) judgments, such as the suppression of a confession statement by a judge or a
finding of guilt vs. innocence by a jury, derive from this comparison. We provide two examples to
illustrate the point that if interrogations were more akin to a scientific endeavor, false confessions
could potentially be reduced.
The first example relates to falsification. An underlying aim of science is to form theories and
then attempt to disprove them (Popper, 1972). In contrast, arguably the aim of law enforcement is to
form theories (about who, how, and why crimes were committed) and then attempt to prove them.
The potential for confirmation bias, for example, might be reduced if interrogators worked from a
model in which they identified suspects but then had to gather evidence that refuted their suspicions.
The process of gathering evidence would remain the same but the mindset of the investigator would
be different in that the goal would now be to disprove suspicions. Furthermore, because other
evidentiary collectors and examiners (e.g., fingerprint, hair, and DNA testers; see Saks, Risinger,
Rosenthal, & Thompson, 2003) are also prone to confirmatory biases or “context effects,” reducing
the bias among police interrogators may serve to prevent a chain of further errors in judgment.
The second example relates to the peer-review process. The purpose of peer review is to
provide an independent, objective assessment of the methods and results on which conclusions are
based, thereby helping to ensure the scientific literature is comprised of reliable research. Peer review
also serves as an objective measure of the expert‟s qualifications (if an expert had no peer-reviewed
publications on the topic at hand, s/he would likely not qualify). Of importance, peer-review is
conducted prior to publication. Imagine if the standard was that scientists could publish articles
without prior review, and review came only after the article was in circulation for months or years
and only then was called into question. The fact that the article had been in circulation (and likely
cited by others) would alone negate the credibility of its problematic nature. This is what occurs with
alleged false confessions: The confession is accepted as an indication of guilt by police and others
(e.g., victims and their families, attorneys, trial judge) sometimes for years, and when questioned at a
later date, the fact that the confession was accepted as such is used to bolster its credibility.
If interrogations and statements of admission from proven false confession cases had
undergone a process similar to peer-review soon after they were conducted and obtained, these
miscarriages of justice may have been identified earlier. Post-confession analyses by independent
assessors could (a) determine if objective corroboration existed for the statements, (b) independently
verify the source of the guilty knowledge (e.g., did it come directly from the suspect, or was it
provided by police during the interrogation, or from media reports read by the suspect prior to
interrogation), and (c) examine the level of consistency between crime scene evidence and statements
provided by the suspect (see Davis & Leo, 2006). Peer review is an objective standard for expert
testimony to be considered admissible; a similar set of standards could be instituted when evaluating
the admissibility of confession statements to be used against defendants in our courts.
Conclusions: Communicating Consensus and Controversies
We believe that much is known regarding factors that can lead to false confessions, and that
current police interrogation methods and practice represent little more than an art, much less a
science. In regard to legal admissibility standards and contemporary interrogation techniques, we
posit the following:
Scientifically supported techniques: In our opinion, there is no one interrogation technique
that is diagnostic of guilt, or one that we feel confident defining as „scientifically
supported.‟ The interrogation techniques advocated by the variety of training manuals
available to law enforcement have generally been experientially developed by their
proponents, but are absent any scientific basis upon which they might be seen as reliable
and diagnostic in approach. Instead, the available scientific research suggests that these
methods are just as likely to produce true and false confessions from suspects, particularly
those suspects with vulnerabilities. Although well-grounded theories, such as obedience to
authority, social validation, and compliance-gaining, provide some scientific support that
the psychologically oriented police interrogation techniques used today „work‟ (i.e., they
produce true confessions) when employed on guilty suspects, these same techniques also
„work‟ (i.e., they produce false confessions) when employed on innocent suspects.
Scientifically unsupported techniques: The ability to detect when suspects are lying versus
telling the truth (or guilty versus innocent) is unreliable. Just as evidence collected via lie
detectors (polygraph machines) is now inadmissible in court, we believe it is time for the
courts to consider the validity and reliability of evidence collected by human lie detectors.
Confessions from suspects who were subjected to interrogation on the basis of non-
verbal/behavioral deception detection techniques should be examined comprehensively
before being presented to jurors, who as noted, are generally unable to distinguish between
true and false confessions.
Scientifically controversial and/or largely untested techniques: While the current research
literature has done well to evaluate the perils associated with current interrogative
procedures, we believe it could benefit from a shift in direction – focusing rather on the
development of evidence-based techniques that could lead to the conduct of more
diagnostic interrogations and the extraction of guilty knowledge. There are numerous
specific interrogation techniques that are amenable to scientific study in the laboratory and
the field that have yet to be examined. For example, and as discussed below, alternatives to
adversarial interrogation, such as models that emphasize open-ended questions and “fact-
finding” (as opposed to confession-seeking) have shown preliminary effectiveness
In Great Britain, high profile wrongful conviction cases and subsequent research have led to
the development of new interrogation standards, which prohibit the use of psychologically
manipulative techniques, mandate the recording of custodial interrogations and the uniform training
of interviewers, and institute special precautions for vulnerable suspects. Of utmost importance,
investigators are also prohibited from deceiving suspects (Milne & Bull, 1999; Mortimer &
Shepherd, 1999). Evaluation research conducted by Clarke and Milne (2001) suggests that these
methods have been effective in changing the culture of police interviewing without significantly
reducing the likelihood of obtaining confessions in practice, and that these methods appear to reduce
the number of unwarranted claims of false confession. Such inquisitorial approaches are deserving of
further research and evaluation both in the laboratory and in the field.
To address these bulleted admissibility standards, the electronic preservation of interviews
and interrogations from start to finish is essential. This is a reform that is relatively simple to
implement and can serve to protect both law enforcement and suspects, eliminating the contradictory
he-said-she-said accounts. Electronic accounts of interrogations do not eliminate the need for experts,
however. It is important that experts who conduct research on interrogations and confessions be
permitted to inform the court regarding the 100-plus years of psychological science informing the
process and mechanisms of interrogation and confessions, as well as to dispel commonly held myths.
As echoed in other chapters in this volume, experts who consult and/or testify in court have an
obligation to present information fairly, accurately, and in its entirety. Because interrogation is best
viewed as an art and because the validity of the techniques currently employed is partly dependent
upon whom they are employed (guilty vs. innocent), experts in disputed confession cases must be
sure to present the science objectively. Among scientists who serve in this capacity as expert
witnesses there is much consensus on the techniques that are likely to produce false confessions
when the situational and dispositional circumstances are taken into account. Of course, there are
those who are in disagreement who fail to appreciate the contributions of the research. In written
communications and in the courtroom, it is important that experts communicate this consensus,
attend to any perceived controversies, and address the unknowns. In this manner, the totality of
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