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The topic of false confessions is another very important issue within a legal context where psychological knowledge and expertise can be brought be bear. Psychological vulnerabilities and interrogative circumstances are two of the key areas that have been examined by psychologists.
The reason that the study of false confessions is such an important topic within forensic psychology is that research into the reliability of testimony and suggestibility is as old as the discipline itself.
Hugo Munsterberg: Untrue Confessions
If you have read the history of forensic psychology pages on this website, you will know that Hugo Munsterberg was a passionate advocate of forensic psychology and an important figure in its history and development.
In 1908 Hugo Munsterberg published 'On The Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology And Crime'. One of these essays was entitled 'Untrue Confessions'. The following extracts are taken from this groundbreaking critique.
I ventured last year to write a letter to a well-known nerve specialist in Chicago who had privately asked my opinion as a psychologist in the case of a man condemned to death for murder. The man had confessed the crime. Yet I felt sure that he was innocent. My letter somehow reached the papers and I became the target for editorial sharp-shooters everywhere. I have before me still a collection of such specimens. "Harvard's Contempt of Court" is the big heading here, "Science Gone [p. 140] Crazy" the heading there, and so it went on in the papers, while every mail brought an epistolary chorus. The efforts of the attorneys to change the condemned man's fate by a motion for a supersedeas before the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. One week later the accused was hanged; yet, if scientific conviction has the right to stand frankly for the truth, I have to say again that he was hanged for a crime of which he was no more guilty than you or I, and the only difference which the last few months have brought about is the fact that, as I have been informed on good authority, the most sober-minded people of Chicago to-day share this sad opinion...
I felt sure from the first that no one was to be blamed. Court and jury had evidently done their best to find the facts and to weigh the evidence; they are not to be expected to be experts in the analysis of unusual mental states. The proof of the alibi seemed sufficient to some, but insufficient to others; most various facts allowed of different interpretation, but all hesitation had to be overcome by the one fundamental argument which excluded every doubt: there was a complete confession. And if the sensational press did not manifest a judicial temper, that seemed this time very excusable. The whole population had been at the highest nervous tension from the frequency of brutal murders in the streets of Chicago. Too often the human beast escaped justice: this time at last they had found the villain who confessed -- he at least was not to escape the gallows. For many years no murder case had so deeply excited the whole city. Truly, as long as a demand for further psychological inquiry appeared to the masses simply as "another way of possibly cheating justice" and as a method tending "towards emasculating court procedure and discouraging and disgusting every faithful officer of the law," the newspapers were almost in duty bound to rush on in the tracks of popular prejudice...
But if I examine these endless reports for a real argument why the accused youth was guilty of the heinous crime, everything comes back after all to the statement constantly repeated that it would be "inconceivable that any man who was innocent of it should claim the infamy of guilt." Months have passed since the neck of the young man was broken and "thousands of persons crowded Michigan Street, jamming that thoroughfare from Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue, waiting for the undertaker's wagon to leave the jail yard." The discussion is thus long since removed to the sphere of theoretical argument; and so the hour may be more favourable now for asking once more whether it is really "inconceivable" that an innocent man can confess to a crime of which he is wholly ignorant.
Yet the theoretical question may perhaps demand no later than tomorrow a practical answer, when perhaps again a weak mind shall work itself into an untrue confession and the community again rely thereon satisfied, hypnotised by the spell of the dangerous belief that "murder will out." The history of crime in Chicago has shown sufficiently that murder will not " out." It is important that the court, instead of bringing out the guilty thought, shall not bring it " in " into an innocent consciousness...
Perhaps we can add still another motive which might induce a man in full possession of his understanding to declare himself guilty against his better knowledge. No statistics can tell the story, but we can suppose that persons suspected wrongly of a crime may, in the face of an unfortunate combination of damaging evidence, prefer to make a false confession in the hope of a recommendation to mercy. Every lawyer knows the famous Boom case in Vermont, where the brothers confessed to having killed their brother-in-law and described the deed in full detail and how they destroyed the body; while long afterwards the "murdered" man returned alive to the village. The evidence against the suspected appeared so overwhelming that they saw only one hope to save their lives -- by turning the verdict, through their untrue confession, from murder to manslaughter. To this group we might count not a few of the historic confessions in the Salem witchcraft tragedy. The nearest relatives urged the unfortunate accused women to such confessions, seeing no other way of escape for them...
The untrue confessions from hope or fear, through promises and threats, from cunning calculations and passive yielding thus shade off into others which are given with real conviction under the pressure of emotional excitement or under the spell of overpowering influences.
On The Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology & Crime by Hugo Münsterberg
See following link to download this psychology classic for free.
The writing of Hugo Munsterberg was not only groundbreaking but also very perceptive. In the first sentence of his essay on false confessions he stated that "I am most seriously convinced that it is a tragedy not only of crime but also of human error and miscarried justice, and my scientific conscience as a psychologist compels me to speak of it because the tragedy of yesterday may come up again, in some other form, tomorrow"
John Mark Karr
Munsterberg's contention that false confessions were a normal phenomena triggered by unusual circumstances was most recently brought to light in the circumstances surrounding the John Mark Karr case.
In relation to the murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey, John Mark Karr claimed that he was present when Ramsey died and that her death was an accident. Authorities were made aware of Karr via the e-mail correspondence he had with Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado.
Karr was arrested in Bangkok returned to the USA for questioning. Shortly after, prosecutors announced they would not be pursuing charges in connection with the murder after DNA tests failed to place Karr at the scene of the crime.
Theoretical Explanations of False Confessions
The work of Kassin and Wrightsman in the USA and Gudjonsson in the UK has done a great deal to further our understanding of the psychology of false confessions.
Professor Saul Kassin
To find out more, a must visit and bookmark resource is Professor Saul Kassin's Williams college webpages. From here you will be able to access an extremely useful collection of academic publications and media articles.
Click Here To Access Professor Kassin's Resource Material.
Professor Gisli Gudjonsson
Well worth a read is a very insightful article on the work of Professor Gisli Gudjonsson into false confessions that appeared in Guardian back in December 2002
Another very useful resource is the Truth About False Confessions Blog. Written and hosted by Professor Alan Hirsch, the blog has three specific goals:
1. To educate the public and policymakers and deepen understanding of all aspects of the problem of false confessions.
2. To promote specific reforms.
3. To assist attorneys with clients who may have confessed falsely
In highlighting numerous examples of false confessions in the real world, this excellent and regularly updated blog offers anybody interested in this profoundly important topic a tangible link between theory and practice.
This special Kindle collection consists primarily of the landmark articles written by members of the Behavioral Science Units, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, at the FBI Academy. These seminal publications in the history of FBI profiling were released by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the information on serial killers provided by the FBI's Training Division.