Over the weekend I attended a conference in which one of the most interesting presenters was a New Yorker reporter who has written a fascinating article on why people falsely confess:
The gist is that most people (80%) don't rely on their Miranda rights; the U.S. interrogation model (called the Reid method) is based on faulty science (that some physical actions show you are lying) and can coax a confession out of a traumatized person; and that the UK alternative method of questioning, called the PEACE model, doesn't have these problems.
The oral presentation was even better than the article (which as you can guess, given that it was in The New Yorker, was pretty good), because he showed clips of actual confessions, showing how the Reid method breaks someone down who didn't actually do it, and how the PEACE method made someone who did do it and was denying it, ultimately confess.
The false confession is counterinuitive; that's why it's so powerful in trials in convincing a jury. It's hard for lawyers in particular, I suppose, to understand why someone allows a policeman to interrogate him for three days straight until he turns to jello and will say anything. These video clips helped show how this happens. The policeman never yells or screams; that's not part of the method. But the interrogator can and does lie – which is allowed under U.S. (but not other Commonwealth state's law) – and can break down a witness by using a series of techniques, particularly if they've been traumatized by the event (e.g. their child has died).
The question is how to improve things. The milder PEACE method, for example, the reporter said, can work because they really don't rely on confessions a lot in the UK. Why not? One reason is that there are cameras EVERYWHERE, so they have lots of film on people typically, showing where they were and when. Is that what we want?
This presentation was almost as powerful as the class I took at law school with about the unreliability for eyewitness testimony. That was another real eyeopener.
My hat is off to all the good folks in the criminal enforcement system who want to do the right thing. The reporter said that after his article was published he received a flood of mail, lots from police. Not one was critical. Instead, it was from folks who wanted to do their job better.
Good for them.