Suppose it is 1980, and you have been arrested for a murder you did not commit. These are the bad old days—a time without any of the essentials that today seem indispensable to daily life. CrackBerries, Facebook, and most importantly for you, DNA testing, are all technologies a decade or more away. What do you do? Though responses may vary, surely the answer to that question cannot be confess to the crime. Why would anyone ever do something so patently absurd? If data on post-conviction exoneration through DNA testing is to be believed, however, that is exactly what a nontrivial number of criminal defendants seem to have done—confess to a crime they did not commit, and often quite convincingly. This perplexing phenomenon was the subject of last week's Crime and Punishment Workshop, when Professor Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia Law School presented a draft of his new paper, The Substance of False Confessions.
To many among the (unwashed) masses, the problem of criminal defendants falsely confessing to crimes for which they are not guilty may seem insignificant. What innocent person would ever confess to a violent crime such as murder or rape, and even if they did, how would they do so credibly? Among scholars, however, post-conviction exoneration has increased awareness of this problem, and prompted psychological research that examines circumstances in which suspects may come to internalize facts about a crime, and even believe they did something that, in reality, they did not. This goes to explaining why someone might confess falsely, but not how they do so convincingly.