What factors can increase a person’s risk of falsely confessing?

Wrongly accused people may be more likely to give false confessions if they are young, mentally impaired or facing tactics such as coercion and threats.

To many people in Catskill, the idea of giving a false confession in response to criminal accusations is almost incomprehensible. Unfortunately, high-profile incidents such as the Central Park jogger case show that these confessions do occur. As Time magazine recounts, in this case, five innocent men were accused of committing violent crimes against a woman. Four ultimately gave confessions, and all five were convicted. Over a decade later, their wrongful convictions were overturned when the true perpetrator confessed.

Data on exonerations made in the state of New York shows that false confessions aren't uncommon. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 32 out of 215 exonerated individuals in the state confessed to crimes that they never committed. Given the significant role that false confessions can play in wrongful convictions, most people can benefit from understanding the risk factors for these confessions.

Mental impairment

The Innocence Project explains that people who are mentally impaired are at greater risk of giving false confessions. For example, people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol may not remember what happened in the past or fully understand the accusations that they face. People with mental disabilities may give false confessions to appease authority figures without comprehending the associated consequences.

Research also suggests that sleep-deprived individuals may be likelier to falsely confess, which is troubling given the timing and duration of some interrogations. According to The Washington Post, sleep loss can adversely affect a person's memory, coherence and understanding of his or her situation. In one alarming experiment, 50 percent of sleep-deprived participants confessed to doing something they never really did, compared to just 18 percent of the other participants.

Pressure or coercion

Threats and duress can also increase a person's likelihood of confessing to a crime that he or she did not commit. In some cases, authorities may promise harsher legal consequences if a person does not cooperate with them and confess, according to the Innocence Project. Authorities may also mislead a person about the strength of the evidence or the person's likelihood of eventually being convicted of the misdemeanor or felony charges.

Personal age

Younger people may also be more inclined to give false confessions. As The Wall Street Journal explains, juveniles may be at risk for the following reasons:

  • They are impulsive and can be manipulated more easily than adults.
  • They are inclined to defer to authority figures.
  • They may focus on the short-term benefits of giving a confession, rather than the long-term consequences.

An analysis completed in 2013 found that false confession rates were significantly higher among exonerated juveniles than exonerated adults. About 11 percent of the exonerated adults had given false confessions, compared to a shocking 38 percent of individuals who were under the age of 18.

Guarding against wrongful confessions

Unfortunately, a confession can be one of the most convincing pieces of evidence in a criminal case. As Time magazine notes, once a confession is made, undermining or challenging it can be highly difficult. As a result, people facing criminal accusations may benefit from consulting with an attorney as soon as possible. An attorney may be able to help a person keep sight of the consequences of a false confession and explore other options for addressing the criminal charges.