From False Confession to Wrongful Conviction: Seven Psychological Processes

By Leo, Richard A.; Davis, Deborah | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

From False Confession to Wrongful Conviction: Seven Psychological Processes


Leo, Richard A., Davis, Deborah, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


A steadily increasing tide of literature has documented the existence and causes of false confession as well as the link between false confession and wrongful conviction of the innocent. This literature has primarily addressed three issues: the manner in which false confessions are generated by police interrogation, individual differences in susceptibility to interrogative influence, and the role false confessions have played in documented wrongful convictions of the innocent. Although the specific mechanisms through which interrogation tactics can induce false confessions, and through which they can exert enhanced influence on vulnerable individuals have been widely addressed in this literature, the processes through which false confessions, once obtained by police, may lead to wrongful conviction have remained largely unaddressed. This article addresses this gap in the literature, examining seven psychological processes linking false confession to wrongful conviction and failures of post-conviction relief: (1) powerful biasing effects of the confession itself, including incorporated "misleading specialized knowledge" (inside crime-relevant knowledge displayed by the suspect in the false confession, but acquired through outside sources (such as the interrogator) rather than in the course of the commission of the crime); (2) tunnel vision and confirmation biases, (3) motivational biases, (4) emotional influences on thinking and behavior; (5) institutional influences on evidence production and decision making; and inadequate context for evaluation of claims of innocence, including (6) inadequate or incorrect relevant knowledge, and (7) progressively constricting relevant evidence. We discuss reciprocal influences of these mechanisms and their biasing impact on the perceptions and behaviors of suspects, investigators, prosecution and defense attorneys, juries, and trial and appellate judges.

KEY WORDS: False confession, wrongful conviction, interrogation.

All evidence to the contrary . . .

On July 10, 1997, Danial Williams was arrested and charged with the brutal rape and murder of his neighbor Billy Bosko's wife, Michelle. Two days earlier after debarking from his navy ship the USS Simpson, Billy Bosko had come home to find her lying in a pool of blood on their bedroom floor, naked from the waist down and dead from strangulation and multiple stab wounds to her chest (Wells & Leo, 2008).

Police soon embarked on a remarkably flawed "investigation" of the case that eventually led to the wrongful accusation and incarceration of seven men, an investigation and prosecution described by one writer as "the present-day equivalent of such insanities as the Salem 'witch trials' of the 1690s" (Connery, 2008; see Wells & Leo, 2008 for a full account of the case). Detectives elicited false confessions from four men - Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Eric Wilson and Derek Tice - who would later come to be known as the Norfolk Four. Three of these men (Williams, Dick and Tice) remain incarcerated to this day serving life sentences, despite DNA exculpations, the identification of the true perpetrator (Omar Ballard), his corroborated confession, and the match of his DNA to the semen found in the victim. The fourth, Eric Wilson - who, unlike the others, had falsely confessed only to rape instead of both rape and murder - served more than seven years before being released from prison in 2005. Three other additional innocents (Richard Pauley, Geoffrey Farris and John Danser) were also arrested - but did not confess. Each served 7 to 10 months in jail before capital murder charges against them were dismissed.

In this article, we begin by briefly recounting how and why police detectives initially targeted the innocent suspects in the Norfolk Four case and then elicited four false confessions. We then identify seven psychological processes that are often involved when false confessions lead to wrongful conviction, using the case of the Norfolk Four to illustrate the way in which these psychological processes may affect the post-confession thinking and actions of those involved in producing a wrongful conviction - from defendants, investigators and attorneys, through trial judges and juries, to the rulings of appellate courts. …

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