False confessions may lead to irreparable harm

To anyone who has never experienced the intense strain of a lengthy police interrogation, the idea of offering a false confession may seem farfetched. However, false confessions are a regular occurrence in the American criminal justice system, and they often come with lifelong consequences.

When people confess to crimes they did not commit, they typically do so under the mistaken impression that "cooperating" with police by confessing will be more beneficial to them in the long run than maintaining their innocence. Many criminal suspects who confess to crimes they did not commit rationalize the decision to falsely incriminate themselves by thinking that they will be able to sort it out later.

Unfortunately, whatever the reason behind it, overcoming a false confession can be extremely difficult. This is especially true in Pennsylvania, where the state's highest court ruled in 2014 against allowing an expert in false confessions to testify about the specifics of a case. That ruling established a legal precedent that makes it more difficult for criminal defendants in Pennsylvania to overcome a false confession in court.

According to data cited by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, an organization that advocates on behalf of wrongfully convicted prisoners, more than one-fourth of all wrongfully convicted individuals who are later exonerated on DNA evidence had offered false confessions. Even those who are eventually exonerated spend an average of about 10 years in prison as a result of their wrongful convictions, according to statistics from the organization.

False confession risk factors

Certain factors tend to increase the risk that an individual will falsely confess to a crime he or she did not commit, such as:

  • Violence or fear of violence
  • Duress or coercion by interrogators
  • Intoxication
  • Youth
  • Mental impairment
  • Lack of knowledge about the law
  • Misunderstanding of the situation

For people whose false confessions result in conviction, rectifying the situation can be extremely difficult if not impossible. Even those who are ultimately released after falsely incriminating themselves spend an average of 10 years in prison before being exonerated, and many are far less fortunate.

These troubling statistics underscore just how important it is for everyone, especially young people, to understand their legal rights and to exercise those rights when interacting with police - however counterintuitive it may feel in the moment. If you are questioned or detained by police, it is in your best interest to politely but firmly decline to engage in conversation until your defense attorney is present. Contact the criminal defense lawyers at Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg & Gifford, P.C., for legal assistance if you or a loved one is involved in a criminal investigation in Pennsylvania.