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False Confessions: How Can Forensic Psychologists Tell?

paralegal whatever pickSince 1992, the Innocence Project has freed nearly 300 people from imprisonment because the evidence in their original trials was shown to be tainted or false. In fact, a considerable number included actual confessions by the defendant, only to show afterwards that they were not speaking the truth.

The role of the forensic psychologist is to cut through any false evidence and discover the truth. However, that can be more difficult when a confession is given.

What is a False Confession?

Basically, a false confession is an admission of guilt concerning a crime in which the person making the confession is actually not responsible. There are a number of reasons for a false confession ranging from covering for the actions of another person, coercion by law enforcement officials or a mental disorder that may cause that person to actually believe that they committed the crime.

Although it would seem that false confessions should be rare, one-quarter of all exonerations based on DNA evidence reveal that the confession in the crime was a false one. One of the most prominent cases where a false confession was made involved the conviction of John Kogut. His confession, which also led to the conviction of two other men, turned out to be false based on new DNA evidence. Kogut had spent almost two decades in prison for a crime that he did not commit.

The Forensic Psychologist

A forensic psychologist is trained to be an expert in analyzing people involved in crimes, including suspects and defendants. The forensic psychologist must designate whether a person accused of a crime is competent enough to stand trial in addition to putting  together the facts of the case itself.

Although they are a psychologist by trade, a forensic psychologist is not interested in the feelings or situation of the suspect or defendant, only in analyzing the person and obtaining all the pertinent facts of the case. The knowledge they gain from the suspect or defendant is then put together with the evidence collected about the case itself. They are often called as expert witnesses in trials and to crime scenes to provide valuable insight into a case.

The Relationship of Forensic Psychologists and False Confessions

Theoretically, few people that provide a false confession should ever get past the forensic psychologist since their training is oversee all the evidence and weed out anything that doesn’t fit. Yet the Kogut case is but one of thousands of examples were false confessions actually lead to convictions despite the insight of forensic psychologists.

However, research has revealed a troubling connection with false confessions and basic mistakes made in gathering evidence that can warp the perception of a case against a defendant, especially when the false confession was made before the gathering of such evidence.

For the forensic psychologist, this can certainly alter their perceptions of the truth and the real facts of the case. However, they are not alone as even trained polygraph examiners and fingerprint experts can be led down the wrong path as well. In fact, the original Kogut trial was riddled with so many mistakes that the results led to a retrial and his acquittal.

For forensic psychologists, a dispassionate view of all the evidence gathered must include questioning any confession lest it falsely color their judgment.

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