Why Do Innocent People Confess To Crimes They Didn't Commit?

There are more innocent people who pleaded guilty than you might think. It seems mind-boggling that anyone would confess if they haven't actually done anything wrong. So who are these innocent people who confessed to crimes, and why do people confess to crimes they didn't commit?

Arrested individuals make false confessions for a variety of reasons, though unfair circumstances and abuse figure in many cases. If you're vulnerable and being treated inhumanely while being questioned, there's a good chance you'll say anything just to have it all be over. But that's the problem - it's not over. False confessions often lead to years in prison and even the execution of guiltless parties. So why do innocent people confess to crimes? Usually because they're forced to, because they feel like they have no other choice. But once that admission of guilt is out there, it's hard to take it back.

Photo: flickr / CC0

  • They're Being Tortured

    One of the biggest arguments against torture - besides the fact that it's inhumane - is that the information and confessions received during torture are often unreliable or untrue. For example, Mohamed Ramadan, a police officer at Bahrain International Airport, was arrested in 2014 under suspicion of attacking other officers. He was innocent, but was tortured until he made a false confession. The torturers even admitted that they knew he was innocent, but they were angry with him for attending pro-democracy rallies.

    Ramadan was convicted, and is sentenced to be executed.

  • They Have Internalized Guilt

    They Have Internalized Guilt
    Photo: George Self / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Sometimes, an innocent individual can become so convinced of their own guilt that they actually believe they committed a crime.

    Peter Reilly discovered this firsthand when he found his mother dead in their home in 1973. He was brought in by the police, who told him he had failed a lie detector test (he hadn't). Between that lie, and hours of questioning, investigators essentially bullied him into believing that he had killed his mother. He even wrote a confession, saying, "I remember slashing once at my mother’s throat with a straight razor I used for model airplanes."

    Reilly was eventually exonerated - but only after he spent time in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

  • They Misunderstand The Consequences

    Sometimes, confessing is presented by the authorities as the easy way out. Stefan Kiszko was accused of the brutal murder of a young girl, Lesley Molseed, in 1975. He was told there were two options: if he confessed, he would be eligible for parole; if he didn't, then he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. So, he confessed, knowing that his confession was false. Kiszko assumed that the police would look into his story, find out it wasn't true, and let him go.

    They didn't. Despite recanting as soon as he was given a lawyer, Kiszko spent 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

  • They're Being Beaten

    In 1934, three black farmers, Arthur Ellington, Ed Brown, and Henry Shields, were accused of murdering white planter Raymond Stuart. They had confessed to police, but only after an extremely violent interrogation that included brutal whippings. They were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, but appealed.

    In the resulting landmark case Brown v Mississippi, the Supreme Court ruled that confessions obtained through violence undermined the right to due process. The men's sentences were reversed, though they ended up serving time for manslaughter.

  • They're Forced Into Compliance

    After 14 to 30 hours of interrogation, you'd probably confess, too. That's exactly what happened to the Central Park Five. Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise confessed to the rape of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. They later recanted their stories, saying that they had only confessed because they were worn down and forced to by the police. In fact, a serial rapist was later found guilty of the crime with the help of DNA. The wrongfully imprisoned men received a $41 million settlement because of their treatment.

  • They're Faced With A Harsh Sentence

    They're Faced With A Harsh Sentence
    Photo: Relic Photo / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Plea bargains can tempt false confessions. In 1990, Michael Phillips was misidentified in a photo line up for the rape of a 16-year-old girl. But because he was black and the victim was white, he worried that a jury wouldn't believe his innocence. Rather than risk a longer sentence, he plead guilty and received 12 years in prison. Phillips ended up serving 24: he was finally exonerated when another man's semen was matched to the rape kit in 2014.