Confessions of Guilt: From Torture to Miranda and Beyond

By George C. Thomas III; Richard A. Leo | Go to book overview
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The “American Method”—The
Third Degree

American police, but not English police, developed the interrogation method known as the “third degree”—the use of intense coercion on suspects to produce confessions. Jerome Frank wrote in 1949, “To our shame be it said that the English, who do not tolerate the ‘third degree,’ call it the American method.’”1 Many of the same cultural forces operating in England also operated in the United States. One of our tasks in this chapter is to seek differences that explain why our police were willing to use physical force to obtain confessions, while the English police were not.

A. The Culture That Produced the Third Degree

Like other social phenomena, harsh police interrogation tactics did not arise in a vacuum. The early years of America’s existence were tumultuous: the War of Independence, fear of foreign invasion, molding the states into a nation, the War of 1812, and the westward expansion into the frontier. But one explanation for the third degree that we must reject is the violent, frontier nature of early American culture. If that were a factor, the American cases would have diverged from the English cases in the early 1800s. They did not. As we saw in chapter 4, one of the most robust expressions of the Hawkins-Leach dictum came from the frontier state of Tennessee in 1823.2

The Treaty of Ghent in 1814 ended the War of 1812, as well as our long-standing belligerence with England. Peace ushered in an era of great prosperity for the United States. Prior to 1850, Lawrence Friedman notes that American “opinion exuberantly believed in growth, believed that resources were virtually unlimited…. The theme of American law before 1850 was the release of energy, in Willard Hurst’s phrase.”3 Between 1850 and 1900, however, Friedman concludes that America changed in fundamental ways. “By 1900, if one can speak about so slippery a thing as dominant public opinion,


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Confessions of Guilt: From Torture to Miranda and Beyond


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