Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
XI. Coerced and False Confessions and Police Deception
A. Importance of confessions
1. It has been estimated that more than 80% of criminal cases are solved by a confession
(Zimbardo, 1967a, 1967b).
2. A confession is the strongest form of evidence; jurors are more likely to convict on
the basis of a confession than anything else, including eyewitness identification
& Wrightsman, 1985; Kassin & McNall, 1991).
3. It has been estimated that after after mistaken eyewitness identification, false
confessions are the most common cause of wrongful imprisonment (Brandon & Davies,
4. Coerced confessions are no longer extracted by physical violence, instead they are
likely to result from psychological interrogation methods. 5. Jurors accept subtle
interrogation that elicits a nonvoluntary confession and discount any coercion (Kassin
& McNall, 1991).
6. The courts aim at only admitting into evidence voluntary confessions, but although
judges may readily exclude confessions where the coercion is blatant and direct, they may
not recognize and exclude confessions where the coercion is subtle.
B. Police interrogations
1. Being interrogated by the police is a highly stressful experience.
2. Isolation and confinement can cause a wide range of behavioral and physiological
disturbances including loss of contact with reality (Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1982).
3. Police interrogation "can produce a trance-like state of heightened
suggestibility" so that "truth and falsehood become hopelessly confused in the
suspects's mind" (Foster, 1969, pp. 690-691).
4. When the interrogator is perceived as a legitimate authority, the suspect may obey
instructions and suggestions which would ordinarily be rejected (e.g., Milgram, 1963).
5. If a person has no experience with arrest and interrogation, he is more likely to
become upset and stressed by the interrogation (Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1982).
6. Police techniques designed to get confessions can potentially undermine the concept of
a voluntary confession.
7. These techniques can be highly developed, psychologically sophisticated, and extremely
effective (Inbau, Reid, & Buckley , 1986; Zimbardo, 1967a).
8. The polygraph may be misused as an interrogation tool to extract a confession.
9. A common approach is to overwhelm the suspect with damaging evidence, to assert a firm
belief in his guilt, and then to suggest that it would be easier for all concerned if the
suspect admitted to his role in the crime (Driver, 1968, Inbau, Reid, & Buckley, 1986;
Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985).
10. The most widely used text for training police is Criminal Interrogation and
Confessions (Inbau, Reid, & Buckley, 1986).
a. In 1966 in Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court quoted the 1962 edition to show
that police used deception and psychologically coercive methods in questioning people.
b. The court concluded that interrogation is now psychologically oriented rather than
physical but that the degree of of coerciveness inherent in the situation had not
diminished (p. 448).
c. This current edition continues to actively advocate deception and lying practices for
interrogators to get evidence and confessions.
d. An example is the advice given about questioning a rape victim:
Where circumstances permit, the suggestion might be offered that the rape victim had acted
like she might have been a prostitute and that the suspect had assumed she was a willing
partner. In fact, the interrogator may even say that the police knew she had engaged in
prostitution on other occasions . . . (p. 109).
e. The U. S. Supreme Court perceived that the sixteen strategies for interrogation
proposed by Inbau and Reid (1962) show three major themes.
i. The first is to re attribute the implications of the situation by shifting the blame or
minimizing the seriousness.
ii. Alternatively, the questioning may aim at frightening the individual by exaggerating
the evidence available, the consequences to the individual, or stating firmly that the
interrogator knows the person is guilty.
iii. The third theme is the emotional appeal to the person being questioned by showing
sympathy, flattery, respect, and appeal to the best interest of the suspect. These are
some of the practices the court found inherently coercive.
C. Individual factors
1. Factors encouraging a suspect to make a genuine confession may be similar to those in
influencing a person to make a false confession.
2. Gudjonsson and MacKeith (1982) note that "non-psychotic individuals ruminating
guiltily about such things as sexual deviation may also have an exceptionally low
threshold to confession to things that they have not actually done" (p. 259).
3. The false confessor may be aware he is not telling the truth or his perceptions may be
distorted or he might even be deluded for a brief period of time.
4. The false confession in all of these situations is an interplay between the person's
mental state, basic personality, intelligence, and all of the circumstances of the
5. Criminal suspects who make confession statements which they later deny differ from
subjects who persistently deny any involvement in the crime for which they are accused.
6. In our experience with child sexual abuse allegations, there is a subset of individuals
who are accused, interrogated, often jailed, who then produce a confession of sorts. Later
they deny the accusation, retract the confession, and claim to have been coerced and
pressured by the police.
7. Individuals who are naive, suggestible, passive, dependent, and who obey authorities
appear more vulnerable.
8. Gudjonsson and his colleagues have done research on this and have developed a scale to
assess this (Gudjonsson 1984a, 1984b, 1991; Gudjonsson & Clark, 1986).
9. Kassin & Wrightsman (1985) describe three types of false confessions.
D. Police deception
1. The investigator must be aware of the possibility of misbehavior by police.
2. Explanations for police deception
a. The "rotten apple" concept sees personal pathology or character deficits as
the cause of police misbehavior.
b. The "rotten barrel" concept asserts that it is the environment and nature of
police work that accounts for police misbehavior. Barker (1977) documented the social
support for corruption, the opportunities, and the socialization practices of police
c. The built-in paradox (Skolnick, 1982). Detecting for a police officer is a process
moving from investigation, through interrogation, to testimony. The system permits
deception during the investigation phase. A detective may pose as a consumer, a fellow
criminal, a panderer, or use informers and wiretaps. The line between entrapment and
acceptable deceit is vague and unclear. The paradox is that the end of truth justifies the
means of lying.
d. The role of interrogator may be powerful enough to produce lying behavior from anyone
who is placed in that role. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney, Banks, &
1973) showed that in less than a week normal, educated, mentally healthy young American
men could be transformed into either hardened, dehumanizing, lying guards acting in the
same patterns as Nazi concentration camp guards or passive, dependent, and depressed
prisoners by the role assigned to them.
3. While lying is approved in investigation, and viewed as necessary in interrogation,
perjury is not formally condoned. But although the rules are clear that lying is not
permitted in testimony in court, it is generally accepted that police lie under oath and
regularly commit perjury (Barker & Carter, 1990).
E. Examples of lying by police that we have seen when children are questioned in child
sexual abuse cases.
1. Telling children that other children who have been questioned told of abuse (Underwager
& Wakefield, 1990). This is a form of the interrogation tactic, "playing one
offender against another," advised by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley (1986) which tells the
interrogator to say that another person has confessed or implicated the one being
2. Telling children the doctor found proof they had been abused when the medical
examination was normal and there was no physical observation to support a claim of abuse.
3. Telling children if they told what their parents did they would get to leave the foster
home and go home but if they didn't tell they could not go home.
4. Telling children that Daddy is "sick" and the child should tell so he can get
"help" and not do those terrible things anymore.
5. Telling children mommy or grandma or some other adult told them what happened or what
the child said earlier.
6. Pretending to call Daddy on a telephone in the office and then telling the child that
Daddy said he wouldn't abuse her anymore.
7. Writing a letter to the child and telling the child it was from the accused
perpetrator. The letter told the child to tell about the abuse.
F. Other Types of Police Deception
1. "Fluffing up" the evidence to insure conviction of a suspect the officer
believes to be guilty (Barker & Carter, 1990).
2. McCloskey (1989) lists police lies on the witness stand, police pressure to coerce
false witnesses, suppression of exculpatory evidence, shoddy police work after a
conclusion has been reached about guilt, and falsified forensic science reports as major
factors in wrongful convictions.
3. In the current controversy about the prosecutor's actions toward DNA researchers, in
the Frye hearing, it was documented that the FBI had concealed scientific data that
falsified its reliance upon DNA testing and sought to suborn witnesses (Scheck &
4. There is a widespread belief among law enforcement personnel that police work by the
book is impossible is the chief rationalization for lying (Hunt & Manning, 1991)
5. Lindsay (1991) conducted a series of four experiments which suggest that police
deliberately and intentionally construct biased line ups to assure identification of a
suspect they believe guilty.