Why Are Black Suspects More Likely to Give a False Confession Than White Suspects?

That is the question Cynthia Najdowski explores in an interesting new article, “Stereotype Threat in Criminal Interrogations: Why Innocent Black Suspects are at Risk for Confessing Falsely,” 17 Pscyh., Pub. Pol’y & L. 562 (2011).  A growing body of empirical research does indeed suggest that blacks are more likely to give a false confession than whites, but why?

Najdowski’s paper does not present any new empirical research of her own, but she does offer a new hypothesis to explain the racial disparity in confessions.  Prior scholarship has attempted to account for the disparity by reference to (1) “cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication styles, which would cause Black suspects to appear more deceptive and police investigators to put more pressure on them to confess”; and (2) “status differences in speech patterns,” leading black suspects to “react to false accusations with denials, hostility, and defensiveness, which probably solidifies investigators’s suspicions” and thereby also prompts greater pressure on the suspects to confess.  (563)

To these theories, Najdowski adds a new “stereotype threat” hypothesis.

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Why Confess?

Why do suspects confess to the police?  Researchers Allison Redlich, Richard Kulish, and Henry Steadman set out to answer this question by interviewing 65 individuals who had confessed to crimes, slightly more than half of whom claimed to have falsely confessed.  The results are reported in their new article “Comparing True and False Confessions Among Persons With Serious Mental Illness,” 17 Psych., Pub. Pol’y, & L. 394 (2011).  As the title indicates, the researchers were particularly interested in individuals with serious mental illness, which is a group that has been identified in the literature as especially likely to confess.

What I found most intriguing about the results was the importance of “internal pressure” as a motivation for confessing.  This refers to feelings of guilt about the crime, a desire to “get it off one’s chest,” and a belief in the importance of honesty.  Among the “true confessors,” guilt/honesty-type answers were the most common when the interviewer asked the open-ended question, “Tell me in your own words, why you confessed?”  (403)  (Not surprisingly, almost none of the “false confessors” cited this reason.)  By contrast, “external pressure” (e.g., bullying by the police) was rarely cited by either true or false confessors.  (The most common reason given for false confessions was a desire to protect someone else.)

Similarly, when subjects were asked to rate various suggested motivations on a seven-point scale (1 was “not at all” a reason, and 7 was “very much so”), the true confessors rated guilty feelings as among the more important, with an average score of 3.52.  (407)

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Wrongful Conviction?

Steve Bogira has an interesting new piece in the Chicago Reader on Mark Clements, a Chicagoan who served 28 years in prison for a quadruple murder he may not have committed.  Clements was convicted on the basis of a confession that he maintains was delivered under torture.  As is now known, the Chicago police of that era were indeed torturing suspects to secure confessions, so Clements’s story has some plausibility to it, which no doubt helped him to negotiate a deal in 2009 that led to his early release from what had been a life sentence.

Bogira’s article explores Clements’ difficult life before the crime and considers the question that probably no one but Clements will ever be able to answer — whether he committed the crime or not.  Bogira also notes what is the more manifest injustice of Clements’ case: he was sentenced to a life in prison for a crime that he allegedly committed when he 16.  But this fact, and the role of poverty and family dysfunction in shaping Clements’s young life, has been downplayed in the narrative presented by Clements and his supporters.  Bogira puts it this way:

His life was dreadful before any detectives or prosecutors stepped in it. But a tale about the crimes of poverty is more complicated, and not as politically potent, as a story about criminal justice malevolence. As Clements and the activists understand, when it comes to violent crimes the public’s sliver of compassion for convicts is reserved for the ones with the magic words in their narratives: “. . . a crime he didn’t commit.”

Bogira’s observations nicely underscore one of the negative effects of the “innocence movement”: by emphasizing the centrality of the guilt/innocence question, the movement has subtly and unintentionally marginalized questions about justice in sentencing that may have far greater practical importance.

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Pucker Up

Is this another chapter in the Ninth Circuit’s running war with the Supreme Court over habeas corpus?  The en banc Ninth Circuit granted habeas relief earlier this week in Doody v. Ryan (No. 06-17161).  Some — and count the en banc court’s three dissenters among this “some” — may see Doody as an act of defiance against the Supreme Court for two reasons.  First, the Court has recently overturned several Ninth Circuit habeas grants, indicating in the process that the Ninth Circuit misunderstood the level of deference to state-court decisions that is required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.  Second, an earlier grant in Doody itself was overturned by the Court, albeit only through a summary GVR in light of Florida v. Powell, 130 S. Ct. 1195 (2010).

At issue in Doody was the admissibility of a confession given by a juvenile defendant after extensive police interrogation in a multiple-homicide case.  The Ninth Circuit held the confession inadmissible based both on a Miranda violation and involuntariness.

The court carefully, and I think persuasively, distinguished Powell and other SCOTUS precedent.  On the whole, the court’s long opinion seems quite case-specific in its analysis.  There are a few passages, though, that seem intended to send a broader message about habeas and to reaffirm a robust role for federal courts in overseeing the work of state courts.  Here’s my favorite:

Our colleagues in dissent chastise us for reaching these conclusions, accusing the majority of “once more pay[ing] mere lip service to AEDPA and then proceed[ing] as though it does not exist.” Dissenting Opinion, p. 5860. The dissent would prefer that we simply parrot the findings made during the state court proceedings and call it a day. However, if we succumb to the temptation to abdicate our responsibility on habeas review, we might as well get ourselves a big, fat rubber stamp, pucker up, and kiss The Great Writ good-bye. (5804)

Somehow, I doubt the Supremes will be impressed.

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Mississippi Lifers Exonerated in Rape-Murder Case

Phillip Bivens was released yesterday after serving thirty years of a life sentence for a rape-murder in 1979.  As reported by the New York Times, Bivens and a codefendant pled guilty in the case, while a third defendant was convicted by a jury.  New DNA analysis of the rape kit exonerated all three men earlier this year, although only Bivens was still serving time — one codefendant died in prison, and the other had already been released for medical reasons.  Little evidence connected the men to the crime aside from their own incriminating statements, which had apparently been coerced from them. 

DNA exonerations in recent years have done a great deal to highlight the reliability problems with confessions that are uncorroborated by physical evidence.  I wonder, though, to what extent these problems have really sunk in with the lay public.  On their face, confessions seem such extraordinarily compelling evidence — what could be more reliable than a statement so directly and profoundly against personal interest?

The Mississippi case is also interesting as an illustration of reliability problems with guilty pleas, particularly when the death penalty is available.  Bivens entered his false guilty plea in order to avoid facing the death penalty.  My own views about the death penalty are neither strongly for nor strongly against, but I have long thought that the biggest problems with the death penalty are not in the very small number of cases in which it is actually imposed, but in the possibly much larger number of cases in which fear of the death penalty leads to a guilty plea and an undeserved life sentence.

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