When They See Us: Why People Confess to Crimes That They Did Not Commit

Here’s an interesting fact for your consideration. Of the 350+ people exonerated thanks to representation by the Innocence Project, 29% of them falsely confessed to their crimes. They were exonerated by DNA evidence to show that that they did not commit the crimes, so how do you explain their confessions? Why would someone confess to a crime that they did not commit? The short answer is that certain interrogation techniques increase the likelihood of false confessions by vulnerable people.

Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

As part of this discussion, I want to talk about the “Reid Technique,” a method of interrogation widely used by police departments across the country because it has recently been in the news under very unusual circumstances. John E. Reid and Associates, a company that produces manuals and provides training to law enforcement on the Reid technique has sued Ava DuVernay and Netflix for defamation over the way their method (and by extension, the company) is portrayed in the Netflix series “When They See Us.” When They See Us tells the tragic story of the Central Park 5 – teenagers who were falsely accused and erroneously convicted for brutally raping and nearly killing a woman who had been jogging in the park.

The Reid technique starts with a behavioral assessment of the person being questioned. The questions themselves are not necessarily specific to the crime and the interrogator is looking for signs of deception. Failing to make eye contact, slouching and crossing one’s arms are viewed as indications of deceptiveness. The Reid instructors and police nationwide believe that police officers have a superior ability to assess when someone is lying. Controlled experiments show that police are no better than the general public at assessing truthfulness.

Once the interrogator(s) believe that the person is being deceptive a formal interrogation begins. The interrogator is trained to repeat accusations and ignore the suspect’s denials. They will offer sympathy and understanding to why someone who commit such an act and minimize the moral culpability. For example, a detective investigating a murder who believes that the victim’s long-term boyfriend did the act might sympathize with difficulties in their relationship and suggest that anyone who had been provoked the way the suspect had might “snap” and harm his partner with no intent of killing her.

The interrogator will often use false claims of evidence, such as witnesses who don’t exist, to overcome the suspect’s denials. I’ve seen detectives talk about fictional surveillance videos and fingerprint evidence. While one would hope that an innocent person would continue to deny his involvement even when confronted with false evidence, this ongoing pressure will lead some people to falsely confess in order to get out of an extremely stressful situation. People who have falsely confessed talk about believing that they could clear up the mix-up later (for example, show that the person depicted in the non-existent surveillance video is not them) without realizing the power of a confession in directing an investigation and persuading a jury.

When the Reid people receive criticism about their technique, they maintain that false confessions only occur when their procedures are not properly followed. But psychologists who study false confessions see flaws inherent in the Reid technique. People are more likely to falsely confess when they are under stress, see no way of getting out of the interrogation without an admission, and the interrogator lowers the emotional barrier to confessing by minimizing the moral wrong of the act. Those factors coupled with the accused not understanding the true harm and consequences of the confession can then lead someone to choose to wrongfully confess. Certain types of people are particularly susceptible to the pressures that lead to false confessions. Youth, cognitive impairment, substance addiction are all traits that increase the likelihood of false confession because people who fall into those categories are more likely to doubt their own memory. While some may confess suspecting that the narrative might be false, after hours of interrogation others may actually be led to believe that the false narrative is true and that they committed the crime. This false belief of guilt is especially pronounced among young people who are more likely to follow the direction of an authority figure.

Once a person confesses, even when it is false, the rest of the investigation into the crime degrades. Witnesses who may have previously offered evidence that did not support the suspect’s involvement may change their story and suddenly remember details that support the confessor’s culpability. This is not necessarily done intentionally or with malice; learning of the confession or picking up cues from officers who are certain of the suspect’s guilt because of the confession can lead to changed narratives. People try to fill in blanks or explain things that don’t make sense and this actually impact their memory and they will unwittingly add/change facts or omit/disregard evidence that doesn’t fit with what they think the outcome should be. Forensic examination can also have different results when people involved in the case believe they know that a person is guilty. When scientists know what the desired outcome is, it influences how they do their work. Not only can scientific testing be done in a way to increase the likelihood of a certain outcome, results that don’t fit into the narrative of the confessor’s guilt will be explained away. For example, male DNA recovered from the victim of the Central Park 5 case did not match any of the charged defendants which led the prosecution to argue at trial that there was a sixth person involved in the rape who had not been identified. Two juries convicted with that evidence before them. Years later that DNA was matched to a serial rapist and murderer who confessed to the crime and said he acted alone. The absence of DNA from any of those five young men should have raised flags but the confessions allowed police, prosecutors, and jurors to suspend common sense and convict. Sociological research has shown that jurors have enormous faith in confessions.

So let’s look at the confessions in When They See Us. The kids being interrogated were 14-16 years old. They had been picked up for harassing and even assaulting people in Central Park on the same night as the rape. The police were understandably desperate to identify the perpetrator(s) of the brutal rape and came into the interrogation room with the belief that these kids were involved or know who were involved. The officers were aggressive and confrontation with the kids. They told the kids that the sooner they told them what they knew the sooner they would go home. The police then lied to them by telling them what other kids had said about them. For example, when the youngest of the group, Kevin, indicated that he knew nothing about what happened to a lady, the detective barked at him that two of his friends had said that they saw him do it. The detective later assured Kevin that he knew that he was a nice kid who didn’t do what the other the kids were saying and that he wanted to help him. He then had Kevin blame the two friends who had allegedly pointed fingers at Kevin and implicate himself in the crime as a lesser participant. At various times in all of the interrogations, detectives are shown screaming, swearing, and slamming their fists on tables to terrify the young men being interrogated and for them to feel futility in continuing to deny their involvement. They only way to end the interrogation was to confess.

I have watched many videos of interrogations of individuals suspected of serious crimes. I don’t get to see what happens before the camera turns on. It is considered best practice to record interrogations so that lawyers and the jury can assess the techniques being used by the interrogators and to consider the demeanor and statements of the accused. Some detectives are pretty good about turning on the camera as soon as the accused enters the interrogation room which is what they are supposed to do; others do a lot of legwork before the camera is turned on. The final recording can be a neat 30 minute confession that is the product of a messy 2 hour interrogation. On camera the detectives sit close to the accused but not too close to look intimidating. They sit between the accused and the door to the room but don’t go out of their way to block him in (even though he is clearly not free to leave – he may even be cuffed to a chair). The accused often has a bottle of water or can of soda in full view of the camera and the detective will make a point to mention that they picked up Burger King on the way to the station which the accused had already eaten. The interrogator’s tone is stern and no-nonsense but there is rarely if ever any yelling. But even with this less confrontational demeanor, minimization remains a central feature in these interrogations because minimization is a central feature of the Reid technique. Telling the suspect of fake witnesses who saw everything, surveillance video, and forensic evidence is very much at use.

Reid trains interrogators to have the suspect include details in their confession that would only be known if they’d committed the crime (for example the exact location where an assault took place.) These details which are supposed to corroborate the confession can easily be introduced by the interrogator in questioning which then make their way into the final confession. In When They See Us, the first four suspects all placed the assault about half a mile away from the actual location in Central Park. When the prosecutor Linda Fairstein (played by Felicity Huffman) and the detectives were confronted by another prosecutor with this blatant discrepancy they shrugged it off as the boys not knowing Central Park well and vowed to make sure the last suspect, who had not been interrogated yet, cleared up that issue.

Now let me tell you a bit about the lawsuit against Netflix and Ava DuVernay. For those of you who have seen the series (and if you haven’t please watch it!) you may not recall any reference to the Reid Technique. In a single scene in the final episode, a prosecutor confronts the lead detective Michael Sheehan about the coercive interrogation techniques used. The ADA says, “you squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid technique has been universally rejected. That’s truth to you.”

Reid and Associates state in their complaint that they asked Ava DuVernay to remove the reference to the Reid method of interrogation from the series and their request was declined. Reid and Associates is upset because they feel that the movie equates coercive tactics such as denying food and bathroom breaks as part of the Reid technique. I haven’t looked at the Reid manual from the late 1980’s when these interrogations took place so I can’t comment if that claim is true. I will say that having practiced since 2003 in jurisdictions where the Reid technique is used I don’t see such blatant aggression and denial of basic necessities. That being said, Reid is still coercive and can produce false confessions. Minimization and the presentation of false evidence to overcome the will of the accused who denies his guilt are cornerstones of the Reid technique.

What Reid is doing through this lawsuit is drawing attention to themselves in a negative way. I’m sure you didn’t remember the quick reference to Reid in When They See Us. I certainly didn’t, and I know about the Reid technique because of my work. Regardless of whether they have viable defamation claims (which I doubt) they are not going to come out of this looking good. Filing a lawsuit means opening yourself up to broad civil discovery rules. Every criminal defense attorney and investigator in the country can’t wait to look at Reid’s internal documents. Certainly they are aware of criticism of their methodology, which is not new, but to what extent do they know that their methods are correlated with false confessions? If they had that knowledge, what if anything did they do to fix this? I will be watching this case closely.