Confessions of innocents

It may seem unbelievable, but false confessions are more common than one might think. Such confessions have garnered the attention of criminal justice researchers and legal scholars alike, as they pose significant psychological and legal puzzles. Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the author of the influential book Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, has studied over 250 criminal cases where DNA evidence played a crucial role, discovering that in at least 40 instances, those wrongfully convicted had confessed to crimes they did not commit. The challenge of overturning a confession in court, where it often holds overwhelming weight, leads us to ask: why would an innocent person confess to something they haven’t done?

The Psychological Impact of False Confessions

Research into false confessions takes us directly to the core of the human psyche. Dr. Saul Kassin and Dr. Jennifer Perillo, psychologists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, have identified a rather alarming human tendency to confess to uncommitted acts. In an intriguing study, 71 students were tested in a scenario where they were falsely accused of damaging a computer by pressing the ALT key, which would supposedly cause all experiment data to be lost. Although only one actually pressed the key, nearly half of the participants ended up signing a confession.

Interrogation Techniques and Their Effects

Intensive interrogation techniques can exacerbate this phenomenon. Kassin and Perillo demonstrated that including false witnesses who claimed to have seen the accused commit the error nearly doubled the number of false confessions. These tactics, which may include presenting nonexistent evidence to pressure a person into confessing, although banned in some countries, are still practiced in several U.S. states.

Vulnerability of Specific Groups

Youth and individuals with mental illnesses are particularly vulnerable to these tactics. Studies have shown that about 90% of young people waive their right to an attorney during interrogations, significantly increasing the risk of false confessions. The judgment immaturity in adolescents, the tendency to underestimate future risks, and the pursuit of immediate gratification, can lead a young person to falsely confess simply to end the stress of an interrogation.


This glimpse into the complex world of false confessions reveals how fragile justice can be when based on uncorroborated confessions. The challenge for modern legal systems is to ensure that confessions are authentic and that interrogation methods respect individuals’ psyche and rights. The quest for true and equitable justice remains a central topic in global academic and legal discussions.