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Page last updated at 11:03 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Why do innocent people make false confessions?

Sean Hodgson
Sean Hodgson had a track record for false confessions

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

When Sean Hodgson told a prison chaplain in 1980 he had murdered a barmaid, he was lying. He subsequently spent nearly 30 years behind bars as an innocent man. So why do people make false confessions?

A conversation in a south London prison between a 30-year-old car thief and a Roman Catholic priest led to one of the UK's biggest miscarriages of justice.

1932: 200 claim to have abducted Charles Lindbergh Jr
1947: Dozens say they murdered actress Elizabeth Short
2006: John Mark Karr claims to have killed JonBenet Ramsay but police drop charges
2006: Renata Mitre jailed for saying she murdered lover in south London, to protect brother

The inmate Sean Hodgson told Father Frank Moran that he had killed Teresa de Simone, 22, when he found her sleeping in her car. He then told a prison officer and repeated the statement, verbally and in writing, to detectives investigating the case, also claiming responsibility for two other murders.

He withdrew the confession at his trial a year later, when he described himself as a "pathological liar" who confessed to countless crimes he had not committed.

But he was nevertheless convicted, with the help of scientific evidence that suggested his blood was of the same type as the attacker. Twenty-seven years later, DNA results have cleared Mr Hodgson of any guilt.

Personality disorder

He is not the only person to have misled police in this way. So why do innocent people do this?

One of the most famous instances was in 1932, when 200 people came forward to claim responsibility for the kidnap and murder of the aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby in New Jersey.

And 15 years later, in the "Black Dahlia" murder case, dozens of people said they killed Elizabeth Short, the aspiring actress whose mutilated body was found in a Los Angeles car park.

1974: Stephen Downing, 17, signs confession to Peak District murder but conviction overturned after 27 years in prison
1976: Stefan Kiszko serves 16 years for murder in West Yorkshire he never committed, claiming confession was bullied
1986: Darvell brothers jailed for murder on basis of false confession
1989: Five teenagers are videotaped confessing to Central Park jogger murder but later say they were coerced

This kind of behaviour shows a personality disorder best explained by looking at reality television stars and the craving some people have for fame, says Dr Ian Anderson, a chartered psychologist regularly called as an expert witness in court to expose false confessions.

"Someone who wants attention to the extent that even negative attention is better than no attention."

Twenty years ago false confessions were mostly due to police coercion but, nowadays, the most common reason is that people mistakenly but genuinely believe they have committed the crime, he says.

"Confabulation means false memory. Memories are not the thing that most people think memories are.

"They're not stored as a library of video tapes of what happened. They are fragmented, associated with other things and reproduced at the moment of their telling.

You shouldn't rely on confessions alone for a conviction
John O'Connor
Former Met Police commander

"If you say to someone 'You know you did this, it's just that you don't remember it', they will start off by saying they didn't do it. Then they easily move to 'Did I do it?' and start to doubt themselves."

We have a sense of ourselves and we have a sense of what is real, he says, but part of that sense relates to what other people are telling us.

Different people respond differently to confabulation, he adds, because some people have a more accurate memory for certain things like colours or dates.

The frequency of false confessions is unknown, although a US campaigning group called the Innocence Project estimates that of 235 convictions overturned due to DNA evidence in the last 15 years, a third involved false confessions.

Charles Lindbergh
At least 200 people confessed to abducting Charles Lindbergh's son

There are many different motivations for people making them, says Gisli Gudjonsson, a professor of forensic psychology who has helped overturn dozens of wrongful convictions, including the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.

"The most common is that people can't cope with the police interrogation or the pressure of the custody confinement."

In the early 1980s his research into how innocent people can be induced under police interrogation to admit to crimes they never committed was hugely influential. He identified factors in an individual's personality - nothing to do with having a low IQ - that would make them more or less prone to pressure when being questioned.

The Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale was widely adopted to test people's vulnerability to this and his work led to radical changes to legal systems and policing methods in many countries. In the UK psychological evidence began to be accepted in courts in 1991, to show how suspects could say things under intense questioning that they did not mean.

Taking blame

There were also significant changes within the police, says Prof Gudjonsson, with a greater emphasis on formal interview training and a more humane tone to questioning.

"But the greatest change has been recording interviews. This is the single best protection for everyone, to have the interviews properly recorded. You can see what's happened and what questions are being asked."

Prof Gudjonsson's present research is on how teenagers confess to crimes they did not commit because they want to take the blame for someone in their peer group. His study involving 54,000 people aged 15 and 16 across Europe suggests that a third of such confessions lead to convictions.

Other people may just be confusing fantasy and reality, he says, or they want to be punished for another misdemeanour and it makes them feel better.

The Darvell brothers
Wayne Darvell's false confession led to a miscarriage of justice

So how do police unpick the truth from the lies?

John O'Connor, a former commander of Scotland Yard's flying squad, says senior police officers and experienced detectives should be aware of mentally unbalanced people looking for attention. The warning signs are absence of motive, no supportive evidence and no forensic evidence.

"You shouldn't rely on confessions alone for a conviction, you should go for corroboration, like fingerprints or circumstantial or DNA. You need more than a confession."

False confessions were more common before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which protected vulnerable people in custody, says Mr O'Connor, by making it an automatic right to have a solicitor present to advise them on answering questions.

It's not so much a problem today, he says, because police are not so reliant on confessions as they used to be and juries want to see forensic evidence and a credible motive.

"Police have to make it a search for the truth and a search for what happened, not a search for a result."

A selection of your comments appears below.

Confessional evidence should be completely disregarded other than as an indicator of regret and to support clemency pleas. In place of confession - often drafted by the interviewer - the interviewee who confesses should be required to provide corroborative proof of the crime by circumstantial evidence.
Tony Jackson, Warminster, UK

In my view, the comment attributed to Dr Ian Anderson in the associated BBC news article on why people falsely confess to crimes (namely, "Someone who wants attention to the extent that even negative attention is better than no attention.") is both wrong and misses an important point. This is likely the behaviour of someone who already feels condemned in their life, for whatever reason. That is likely to be the result of condemning experiences in childhood. Sadly, people feeling this way often seek out what they feel they deserve. In the same way, abused children often seem to seek out abusive relationships in later life.
John, Cambridge

I have no sympathy towards him whatsoever. A waste of tax payers money keeping him in prison and going to court. The real perpetrator may well have been caught and who knows whether he went on to commit more crimes of a similar nature.
Mark, Oxford

Why would people do this? I would sooner have no attention for a lifetime than be branded a murderer and be locked up for decades! Why are people so sad?
Chris Fowkes, Derby, England

I'm intrigued as to why there was no mention of people trying to be found guilty of one crime in order to establish an alibi for another. For example, if someone confesses to a robbery when in fact at that time committed a murder elsewhere, they'll get off a lot lighter.
Darlo, Leeds, W Yorks

I am an experienced detective and interviewer. Many crimes do not leave a "forensic" trail, and often the evidence amounts to a witness statement or two, plus admissions made in interview. If we ban prosecutions where there is no scientific or CCTV evidence, we will make most criminals immune and lose our tenuous grip on law and order in this country.
Neil, Plymouth

I think that while to the average person to falsely confess such a terrible crime seems incredible, to the faux-confessor it's better to known for committing something despicable than to go through life completely unpunctuated by anything more than quiet normality at best. The phenomenon is one explained by psychology, not logic.
Emma Sylvester, Williton, Somerset, England

It is not new at all. It occurs in a novel published in 1866, Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky, where it and the reasons for it are described.
Michael Henderson, Raunds, UK

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