False confessions under the magnifying glass of researchers

Confess to a misdemeanor or even a crime that you did not commit? At first glance, the idea seems absurd. False confessions are however a reality far beyond the anecdote, and numerous scientific researches carried out on the subject for forty years have made it possible to better understand the mechanisms and the risk factors, thus contributing to the prevention. and the review of wrongful convictions. This science of false confessions is based in part on work in experimental psychology which has shown that it is quite possible, under certain conditions, to convince individuals that they are the author of faults, even of crimes. A hack of their brain, in a way.

“We can speak of a ‘golden age’ of research, case studies and judicial impact”, says one of the great specialists in the field, the British Orlando Gisli Gudjonsson, professor emeritus of forensic psychology (King’s College London), in a review article published in February in Frontiers in Psychology.

Some emblematic cases of people convicted after false confessions and subsequently exonerated are remembered, such as, in France, that of Patrick Dils who, still a teenager, recognized a double murder of children and passed close to fifteen years in prison before being exonerated, in 2002. In his book investigation Dizziness of confession (Stock, 2016), journalist Julie Brafman evokes other cases, including those of Marc Machin or Richard Roman.

Emblematic cases of false confessions leading to judicial errors have given rise to documentaries, films and series. For example, “In their eyes”, an American miniseries released on Netflix in 2019, inspired by the edifying story of the “five of Central Park”. These black or Hispanic teenagers spent years in prison for the assault and rape of a jogger in 1989, before a serial rapist revealed in 2002 to be the sole culprit.

Files far from exceptional

Beyond the most high profile cases, false confessions would be, even if the figures are fragmented, far from exceptional. The American Richard Leo, professor of law and psychology at the University of San Francisco, another historical player in research on the subject, explains to the World have gathered more than 250 proven cases. These files, still under analysis, should be submitted for publication in 2022. Still in the United States, The Innocence Project (a non-profit organization that works to demonstrate the innocence of convicted persons through second opinions ) estimates that false confessions are involved in 29% of exoneration files by DNA examinations (375 as of November 14, 2021). In Iceland, 20% of prisoners allegedly made false confessions, according to data cited by Gisli Gudjonsson. A few years earlier, another study by this researcher in forensic psychology, in a population of adolescents in seven European countries, estimated at 13.8% the proportion of false confessions among the 2,700 young people who had been questioned by the police.

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