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From False Confession to Wrongful Conviction: Seven Psychological Processes

Richard A. Leo

University of San Francisco - School of Law

Deborah Davis

University of Nevada, Reno

January 1, 2009

Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 2009
Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2009-28

A steadily increasing tide of literature has documented the existence and causes of false confession as well as the link between false confession and wrongful conviction of the innocent. This literature has primarily addressed three issues: the manner in which false confessions are generated by police interrogation, individual differences in susceptibility to interrogative influence, and the role false confessions have played in documented wrongful convictions of the innocent. Although the specific mechanisms through which interrogation tactics can induce false confessions, and through which they can exert enhanced influence on vulnerable individuals have been widely addressed in this literature, the processes through which false confessions, once obtained by police, may lead to wrongful conviction have remained largely unaddressed. This article addresses this gap in the literature, examining seven psychological processes linking false confession to wrongful conviction and failures of post-conviction relief: (1) powerful biasing effects of the confession itself, including incorporated "misleading specialized knowledge" (inside crime-relevant knowledge displayed by the suspect in the false confession, but acquired through outside sources (such as the interrogator) rather than in the course of the commission of the crime); (2) tunnel-vision and confirmation biases, (3) motivational biases, (4) emotional influences on thinking and behavior; (5) institutional influences on evidence production and decision-making; and inadequate context for evaluation of claims of innocence, including (6) inadequate or incorrect relevant knowledge, and (7) progressively constricting relevant evidence. We discuss reciprocal influences of these mechanisms and their biasing impact on the perceptions and behaviors of suspects, investigators, prosecution and defense attorneys, juries, and trial and appellate judges.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 48

Keywords: false confession, wrongful conviction, police interrogation

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Date posted: January 16, 2009 ; Last revised: September 9, 2010

Suggested Citation

Leo, Richard A. and Davis, Deborah, From False Confession to Wrongful Conviction: Seven Psychological Processes (January 1, 2009). Journal of Psychiatry and Law, 2009; Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2009-28. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1328622

Contact Information

Richard A. Leo (Contact Author)
University of San Francisco - School of Law ( email )
2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

Deborah Davis
University of Nevada, Reno ( email )
Reno, NV 89557
United States
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