Guilty as Charged?

xid-955417_1When an alleged criminal confesses to a crime, it is assumed the person confessing is the person is guilty. This makes the judge, jury, police, and public sleep better know there is a dangerous criminal off the streets, but can we assume the right person is behind bars?

In a survey of American police investigators and Canadian customs officials, 77% believed they could accurately identify a guilty person (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein, 2010). T.V. and movies only add to the belief that all people who plead guilty or confess to a crime are guilty. Confessions of Crime, a show where tapes of confessions are put together, is labeled as “fact not fiction” in bold letters, adding fuel to the myth (Lilienfeld et al., 2010, pg 221). However, when someone confesses, they are not always guilty.

According to the Innocence Project, about 25 percent of people who confessed to a crime were proven innocent with DNA from the crime scene. It is often asked why these people confessed. Possible reasons for false confessions are: “… coercion, intoxication… mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence… [or] a harsh sentence, or misunderstanding the situation” (“False Confessions or Admissions”). In the 2001 case of the murder of Kent Heitholt, Chuck Erickson and Ryan Ferguson confessed to the crime (Warder). However, neither could give details until told them by the police. In another case, John Mark Karr, an alleged pedophile, confessed to the murder of six year old JonBenet Ramsey but was later found innocent when his DNA did not match the crime scene (Lilienfeld 2010, pg. 221).

In these cases and many more, innocent people are confessing to crimes they did not commit. These people are serving time in prison, or worse, because of confusion or being prodded to confess. The Innocence Project investigates reasons for false confessions and calls for a reform of police interrogations to better find who is guilty and who is falsely confessing (“False Confessions or Admissions”). Over 290 prisoners that were convicted as guilty have been “cleared” by the Innocence Project (Keene). While an innocent person is being sentenced for a crime they did not commit, the real criminal is still on the streets.


False Confessions or Admissions. Innocence Project. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Keene, D., & Handrich, R. (2012, November 28). “Only the Guilty Would Confess to Crimes”
: Understanding the Mystery of False Confessions.

Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. (2010). Myth #46 Virtually All People Who Confess to a Crime Are Guilty of It. In 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior (pp. 220-224). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Warder, R. (2013, May 22). 10 Controversial Convictions Based on False Confessions. Listverse. Listverse Ltd.



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