Dateline: February, 2011, Issue 3

Do jurors believe confessions can be false?

A defense claim that a confession is false is difficult for jurors to understand and accept.

Costanzo and colleagues (2010) surveyed 461 surrogate jurors from 7 different cities in the U.S. about false confessions, the ability to discern true from false confessions, permissible interrogation tactics, likely rates of false confessions for different crimes, and expert testimony on police interrogations.

Jurors believe law enforcement officers are better than they are at detecting lies. Over half of the jurors were confident of the lie detection abilities of law enforcement officers, despite social science research showing that police officers are no better than ordinary people at identifying lies. Jurors were less certain about their own ability to differentiate a false confession from a true one, and felt they would be better able to do so by watching a videotape than listening to an audiotape.

Jurors may assume that false confessions are obtained without lies being made by interrogators. From 75% to 90% of jurors disagreed with law enforcement officers lying to suspects in interrogations, and believed law enforcement should conduct an investigation before interrogating a suspect to make sure the suspect actually committed the crime.

Jurors overwhelming (92%) believe that they would not falsely confess to a crime if interrogated by the police. From 20% to 24% of jurors were willing to believe that other people might falsely confess in theft, rape, child molestation and murder cases.

Jurors underestimate the power of a false confession on their decision-making. Only 52% of jurors believe that someone falsely confessing to a crime would be convicted if there was no other evidence against the person. Research on actual false confession cases reveals that when a suspect falsely confesses to a crime and then pleads "not guilty" and proceeds to trial, he or she is convicted 81% of the time (Drizin & Leo, 2004).

Jurors might be helped to appreciate the power of a false confession by expert testimony. A large majority of jurors report that it would be helpful to hear expert testimony about interrogation techniques and reasons why a defendant might falsely confess to a crime.

In sum, jurors' beliefs about false confessions are not accurate: they are unaware that officers use deception when obtaining confessions, and they underestimate the influence of a confession on their decision-making. Jurors also want to hear expert testimony on these matters.

Source Costanzo, M., Shaked-Schroer, N., & Vinson, K. (2010). Juror beliefs about police interrogations, false confessions and expert testimony. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 7, pp. 231-247.

Source Drizin, S.A. & Leo, R.A. (2004). The problem of false confessions in the post-DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, pp. 891-1004.