A confession made by a criminal suspect is considered a most powerful form of inculpatory evidence. Indeed, confessions have been heralded as “the queen of evidence.” The evidential strength of confessions is bolstered by three maxims that are held by lay people and law enforcement personnel alike. First, investigators can distinguish between guilty and innocent suspects, and thus do not interrogate the innocent (the diagnosticity maxim). Second, no (unimpaired) innocent person would confess to a crime he did not commit (the implausibility maxim). And third, statements from innocent suspects will be lacking in detail and thus will fail to persuade the fact finder (the persuasiveness maxim).
Yet, false confessions occur with some regularity (accounting for 12% of all known false convictions, and 22% of known false murder convictions). In this talk, we will explore the psychological processes involved in commonly used interrogation techniques to critically examine each the three maxims. This exploration will reveal that the interrogation techniques are fully capable of overcoming suspects’ wills and bringing them to confess, regardless of their actual guilt. The persistent and widespread disbelief in the prospect of false confessions renders confession evidence a most enigmatic and troubling form of criminal evidence.