Wrongful conviction stories abound in the news these days as DNA evidence is being used more frequently to reopen cases, some of them decades-old. Groups like The Innocence Project are drawing attention to those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and helping to exonerate them. In many of these stories, those falsely accused of crimes maintained their innocence, filing appeals and talking to anyone who would listen in an effort to have their cases heard.
But what about convictions in which the accused has confessed to the crime and believes in his or her own guilt? How could an innocent person be persuaded to confess to a crime he or she didn’t commit?
Quite easily, according to a new study by Julia Shaw, a lecturer in forensic psychology from the University of Bedfordshire, and Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist at the University of British Columbia. In an article in the January 2015 issue of the journal Psychological Science, Shaw and Porter describe the method by which they were able to implant false memories of committing a crime into the minds of college-age adults who volunteered for their study.
Participants were screened to exclude those who had any previous history of law-breaking. Shaw and Porter sent questionnaires to participants’ parents to gather background information (e.g., the names of friends, details about their hometowns) that the researchers could use in the stories they fabricated about the “crime.” During the course of the experiment, which included three 45-minute interviews several days apart, participants were not permitted to communicate with their parents.
In the interviews, Shaw asked each participant to talk about a true, emotional experience from his or her early teen years; then, she prompted participants to “remember” an invented crime such as assault that led to an encounter with the police. During the interviews, Shaw maintained a friendly, nonthreatening rapport, offering to help jog memories about the false crime with details from the true event and information gleaned from the parent questionnaire.
The results surprised even the researchers: of 30 participants in the study, 21 developed a false memory of the event, and 11 reported elaborate details of their interactions with the police following their imagined crimes. “We thought we’d have something like a thirty percent success rate, and we ended up having over seventy,” Shaw said in a March 5, 2015 interview with The New Yorker. “We only had a handful of people who didn’t believe us.” In one example, a participant developed a detailed story about a love triangle that turned into a rock-throwing incident. “It was very emotional,” Shaw said. “Each time she’d re-enact the event, the rock would fill her hand a little bit more.”
The study has serious implications for law enforcement. “No department wants the image of locking up innocent people,” said Albie Esparza, public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department, responding to questions about the study from NPR’s Nathan Siegel. Esparza asserts that the “good cop, bad cop” routine is mostly a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, and that police departments are highly motivated to find the real perpetrators of crime. Yet the methods used by Shaw—gathering background information about the accused, drawing connections between that information and a crime, and even lying about facts and witnesses—are all perfectly legal for use by law enforcement in the U.S.
It seems that even when the stakes are high, people are still very susceptible to the influence of an authority figure who is questioning them. In their study summary, Shaw and Porter conclude, “It appears that in the context of a highly suggestive interview, people can quite readily generate rich false memories of committing crime.”
What do you think? What are the implications of police officers using suggestive interview techniques, and when do those techniques cross the line into coercion? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!