False Confession Essays

But long before the cases of Adnan Syed, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were brought to the public’s attention, we and other researchers have been hard at work studying how it is that innocent people sometimes go to prison for crimes they did not commit.In fact, a recent report documented that in 2015, there were a record number of exonerations in the United States.Indeed, they conclude their essay by citing a study showing that police largely found the practice of video-taping to be quite useful and not to inhibit criminal investigations.

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Finally, Kassin and Gudjonsson note that aggressive interrogation tactics can often produce false confessions.

What makes these findings most troubling, according to Kassin and Gudjonsson, is the strong correlation between false confession and wrongful conviction.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

If you are one of the millions of people who have listened to the podcast “Serial” or watched Netflix’s series “Making a Murderer,” you may believe there are innocent people in prison.

Neither of these is very palatable, but if forced to choose, my intuitions favor result (2).

Of course, there are many variables at work here, and I do not have the space to delve into a detailed discussion of all the relevant trade-offs.However, any system devised and implemented by humans must deal with the reality of imperfection.The difficult moral question we need to ask is how we are to balance the needs of society to protect itself from criminals while at the same time protecting the rights of innocent persons.Yes, you read that correctly: innocent people can and do confess to horrific crimes they never committed.False confessions are a factor in approximately 25 percent of DNA exonerations in the United States.That is, I think one might reasonably object that they are overly focused on the possibility of false confessions without saying much about the utility of true confessions.However, their specific proposal that interrogations be video-taped does not seem to diminish the ability of police to effectively interrogate suspects and, when possible, to elicit a confession.We need to ask at what cost we are willing to limit the ability of police and Crown prosecutors to prosecute criminal suspects.Imagine, for example, the following two systems: (1) Almost no innocent persons are ever convicted, but a very high percentage of recidivist offenders are able to escape conviction, (2) A very high percentage of offenders are caught and brought to justice; however, a small but non-negligible percentage (say 3%) of innocent persons are unjustly caught in the system and thus wrongly punished for crimes they never committed.My basic point is that social justice requires not only that we protect innocent individuals from prosecution, but that we hold guilty persons accountable for their actions.While I think that this is a reasonable worry to raise given the tenor of Kassin and Gudjonssons article, I do not think it ultimately undermines their argument.


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