Research suggests that wrongly accused people can develop convincing false memories of their alleged offenses, which could result in false confessions.
Research into eyewitness errors, which occur surprisingly often, indicates that relying too much on human memory during criminal justice proceedings can be risky. Unfortunately, eyewitness testimony isn't the only aspect of a criminal case that can introduce false memories and the potential for wrongful convictions. One study suggests that the memories of the wrongly accused can also easily become distorted, possibly increasing the likelihood of false confessions.
Convincing but false recollections
The Toronto Star explains that the study's researchers interviewed 70 university students with the goal of making each student recall a fabricated memory. The researchers collected information about a real and highly memorable event that occurred during each participant's adolescence. Then, the researchers asked the participants to remember both the real event and the fictional one. They vaguely described the fictional event as an assault or an event that resulted in police contact.
Over the course of three 40-minute interviewers, the researchers used poor memory retrieval tactics to help students remember their supposed offenses. For instance, they assured the students that the event was real and that they could recall it with enough effort. The researchers also encouraged the students to try visualizing the incident or imagining how they would have felt during it.
Overall, the results were troubling. Over 70 percent of the students ultimately came to believe that they had committed juvenile criminal offenses. Some fabricated elaborate, emotional stories, and many felt guilt or remorse over their supposed infractions. Some students maintained that they had committed crimes even after the researchers explained that the memory in question was false. All of these findings have troubling implications for innocent people who find themselves facing criminal accusations.
A look at false confessions
In this particular study, the researchers did not use any of the tactics that are known to increase the risk of false confessions. According to the Innocence Project, these confessions frequently occur due to the following factors:
• Fear - based on direct threats or misperceptions, wrongly accused people may worry that they will face harsh sentencing, physical violence or other adverse outcomes if they don't confess.
• Impairment - people with mental disabilities and people who are temporarily impaired, due to exhaustion, intoxication or stress, may be likelier to give false confessions.
• Misunderstanding - people who don't clearly understand the situation or relevant laws may also be more prone to give false confessions.
The fact that so many students admitted to things they didn't do, such as assault or other violent criminal offenses, in the absence of these tactics is troubling. People who face direct accusations, detainment and prolonged interrogations could be even more likely to develop inaccurate memories and give false confessions. The overall rate of these confessions is difficult to trace. However, the Innocence Project states that over one-quarter of confirmed wrongful convictions have involved some form of false confession.
An important risk to mitigate
The risk of false memories and confessions is one that anyone facing criminal charges in New Jersey should appreciate. State law recognizes the vulnerability of adolescents to such confessions and requires the presence of a parent or guardian during police questioning when practicable. However, for other people, the risk of false confessions may remain high. Consequently, people facing criminal accusations should consider speaking to an attorney to understand their rights and alternate legal options.