A frightening study published a couple years ago was recently brought to my attention: researchers were themselves startled to learn how frighteningly easy it is for people to be convinced, through interrogation, that they committed a crime. They can then easily end up confessing to having committed a crime, with details of a case, all of which never happened.
The study, entitled “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime,” was profiled in a must-read article by the Association for Psychological Science. It relates,
“Our findings show that false memories of committing crime with police contact can be surprisingly easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire in the UK.
“All participants need to generate a richly detailed false memory is three hours in a friendly interview environment, where the interviewer introduces a few wrong details and uses poor memory-retrieval techniques.”
The study interviewed 60 perfectly innocent people with no criminal past. Through a series of information gathering, a handful of true facts (non-incriminating though), and a series of false accusations, suggestions, statements, etc., interrogators were able to create false confessions at an alarming rate, and in just a few hours of interviews.
The results were truly surprising.
Of the 30 participants who were told they had committed a crime as a teenager, 21 (71%) were classified as having developed a false memory of the crime; of the 20 who were told about an assault of some kind (with or without a weapon), 11 reported elaborate false memory details of their exact dealings with the police.
A similar proportion of students (76.67%) formed false memories of the emotional event they were told about.
Intriguingly, the criminal false events seemed to be just as believable as the emotional ones. Students tended to provide the same number of details, and reported similar levels of confidence, vividness, and sensory detail for the two types of event. . . .
“In such circumstances, inherently fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false recollections with astonishing realism,” says Shaw. “In these sessions we had some participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting crimes they never committed.”
In a famous Supreme Court opinion, Watts v. Indiana (1949), Justice Robert Jackson famously stated,
To subject one without counsel to questioning which may and is intended to convict him, is a real peril to individual freedom. To bring in a lawyer means a real peril to solution of the crime because, under our adversary system, he deems that his sole duty is to protect his client — guilty or innocent — and that, in such a capacity, he owes no duty whatever to help society solve its crime problem. Under this conception of criminal procedure, any lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to police under any circumstances.
This problem of false confession and the Judge’s resulting dictum are the very bedrock of our Fifth Amendment, and it grows directly out of biblical laws against false witness. Every Christian needs to understand and embrace this principle to the fullest extent possible.
It is important to remember that the exercise of Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent, etc., is a biblical principle. Exercising it and emphasizing it is not “anti-police.” Rather, it is pro-law and order. Without it, we do not have the rule of law, but a tyranny foisted upon submissive, unsuspecting sheep.
It is for this reason that James Duane, Christian law professor at Regent University crusades vociferously on the topic, “Don’t talk to the police.” A recent article of his begins,
Someday soon, when you least expect it, a police officer may receive mistaken information from a confused eyewitness or a liar, or circumstantial evidence that helps persuade him that you might be guilty of a very serious crime. When confronted with police officers and other government agents who suddenly arrive with a bunch of questions, most innocent people mistakenly think to themselves, “Why not talk? I haven’t done anything. I have nothing to hide. What could possibly go wrong?”
Well, among other things, you could end up confessing to a crime you didn’t commit. The problem of false confessions is not an urban legend. It is a documented fact. Indeed, research suggests that the innocent may be more susceptible than the culpable to deceptive police interrogation tactics, because they tragically assume that somehow “truth and justice will prevail” later even if they falsely admit their guilt. Nobody knows for sure how often innocent people make false confessions, but as Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski recently observed, “Innocent interrogation subjects confess with surprising frequency.”
No one knows, but we do know there are hundreds of such confession that have later proven false, and we know some of the reasons why such confessions are made, as Duane’s article goes on to say.
With the “Rich False Memories” study, we now know one more reason they can happen, and it is so startlingly easy and common it is truly frightening.
For these reasons, American Vision makes a point of offer another unparalleled resource, Christian lawyer and scholar Brent Allan Winters’s booklet, Don’t Talk to the Police. I encourage you all not only to read the articles linked here, but also to get a copy of Brent’s book to learn the biblical truths and historical pedigree behind this great Right. Don’t wait until you learn the hard way. Don’t think, “It’ll never happen to me.” Be prepared for yourself, your family, and to help others by learning the whole truth.