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2011-03-04

Why people confess to crimes they didn’t commit

Since 1989, DNA analysis has been used to prove that people who have been convicted are actually innocent. This post lists interesting facts about these exonerations and then describes a study on why some of them were due to (false) confessions.

Post-conviction DNA exonerations. So far, there have been 266 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. The Innocence Project lists the following facts about them:
  • The first DNA exoneration took place in 1989. Exonerations have been won in 34 states; since 2000, there have been 198 exonerations.
  • 17 of the 266 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
  • The average length of time served by exonerees is 13 years. The total number of years served is approximately 3,471.
  • The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions was 27.
Races of the 266 exonerees:
  • 158 African Americans
  • 80 Caucasians
  • 21 Latinos
  • 2 Asian American
  • 5 whose race is unknown
Consider: 12.4% of the USA are African American. It is not clear what conclusions can be drawn from these numbers, because they are influenced by many factors (who was eligible for exoneration, etc.). But they show how complicated life still is for many African Americans.

Falsely confessing a crime. 25% of the above mentioned 266 false convictions happened partially because of confessions. An Iowa State study [via io9] examines why someone would admit to a crime they didn’t commit. In a nutshell, people chose short-term benefits over long-term disadvantages. Making police interrogation stop is a short-term benefit. Being convicted is a long-term disadvantage. Quoting from the article on the study:
Madon sees the results underscoring the need to limit the use of police interrogation methods that may exploit suspects’ vulnerabilities and encourage them into making confession decisions on the basis of short-term gains.
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