Saturday, January 9, 2016

False confessions and the lessons of the Fairbanks Four

“Interrogation” and “interview” are not synonyms; they have very different purposes and employ very different tactics. Interviews are used in an investigation to gather information -- objective facts -- by asking open-ended questions and allowing the witness to supply the evidence. Police conduct interviews when they don’t yet know the answers to the questions they are asking.

Interrogations, on the other hand, are designed to extract confessions where police already have other concrete evidence connecting the suspect to the crime. Most officers are trained in specific interrogation techniques that are intended to be used against seasoned adult criminals. Because interrogations are so coercive, there’s a danger in using them, rather than an investigation, to solve a crime: They can produce false confessions that blind officers to other objective evidence. According to the Innocence Project, one out of four people who have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated through DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.

The statistic is even higher for teens, who are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of coercive interrogation techniques. This vulnerability is categorically shared by every teen, no matter how intelligent or mature because it is rooted in physiological differences in their brains. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and judgment, is far less developed in the teenage brain, making it much less effective in regulating impulsive behavior by putting a brake on reactions to fear and stress. In a high-stress environment like an interrogation, a teen is far more likely to say anything -- true or not -- just to get it to stop, ignoring the long-term consequences of that decision.


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