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When subjects admit guilt but they’re innocent

Understanding and preventing false confessions

Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Often an interviewer, trained to be accusatory and aggressive, will pressure subjects to admit guilt. Here’s how fraud examiners — rightfully constrained by higher ethics guardrails — can prevent false confessions that result in wrongful terminations and improper convictions, and ruin innocent subjects’ lives, while leaving the guilty free to commit additional crimes.

It boggles our minds to think that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit. Most jurors and even judges probably believe that no mentally competent individual would falsely confess to anything, but particularly to a serious crime like felony fraud or homicide. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has said that false confessions are rare exceptions even when coercion is involved. (See “Regulating Police Deception during Interrogation,” by George C. Thomas III, HeinOnline, 2006-2007.) Supposedly neutral professionals like forensic scientists will discount alibis and other actual evidence of innocence when a subject confesses. Studies showed that alibi witnesses recanted their truthful alibi statements when they were told that subjects confessed to committing the crime. This means that even a witness who knew that a confessing subject in a case wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and thus couldn’t possibly be guilty of the allegations, was sufficiently swayed by the false confession to recant their truthful alibi statement. (See “Recanted Corroborations: The Impact of Confessions on Alibi Evidence,” by Stéphanie B. Marion, Jeff Kukucka, Carisa Collins, Saul Kassin and Tara M. Burke, Ryerson University.) Although false confessions were once believed to be extremely rare they may prove to be alarmingly common when DNA testing exonerates suspects who’ve previously confessed. Law enforcement can inadvertently generate false confessions but so can fraud examiners and occupational theft investigators. We need to understand how this can occur to prevent it from happening.

AutoZone, one of the U.S.’s largest auto parts retailers, has paid out millions of dollars to former employees and their attorneys after the company’s internal investigators had been found to have elicited false confessions from those employees. In 2000, in one of the first cases filed, the AutoZone investigator had accused an employee of stealing $820 during a transfer of a store’s deposit into an armored truck for delivery to a bank. An AutoZone investigator, who held the employee for nearly three hours, promised that if he’d just confess, he could keep his job. If he failed to confess, the investigator said, he’d go to jail. The innocent employee, who wanted to keep his job and avoid jail, eventually signed a statement admitting the theft. The company immediately fired him and deducted the money from his final paycheck.

Two weeks later, it was discovered that the bank found the missing $820. However, the accused ex-employee didn’t get his job or money back. So, he sued the retailer for false imprisonment and wrongful termination. In 2006, a jury awarded $7.5 million to the ex-employee after it decided he’d been falsely imprisoned, and the investigator had used fraud to make him confess. Dozens of other employees have sued AutoZone, citing similar circumstances, often involving the same investigator or investigative team. Juries have awarded tens of millions more in damages. The retailer has appealed each case, but so far the verdicts have been affirmed, although damage awards were reduced in some cases. (See “When Employees Confess, Sometimes Falsely,” by Saul Elbein, The New York Times, March 8, 2014.)

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