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The Confessional Penalty

Talia Fisher

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law; Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

Issachar Rosen-Zvi

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law

August, 31 2008

Cardozo Law Review, Forthcoming

Confessions both hold a great promise and pose a grave danger. When the accused speaks against his interest and assumes responsibility for criminal actions this is viewed as a compelling sign of guilt. It is not, therefore, for naught that the confession has been crowned the "queen of evidence." Yet research conducted in the last few decades has shown that a substantial number of confessions are false, ranking the out of court confession high among the factors leading to the conviction of innocent people. The acceptance of DNA testing, has further substantiated this finding, igniting a renewed interest in out-of-court confessions.

It is hard to assess the magnitude of social harm caused by the widespread and persistent resort to obtaining confessions, but one thing is evident from the vast literature on the matter: this evidentiary mechanism is currently overused, much beyond the optimal level. The reasons for this over-use are varied, among them the fact that confessions are readily available for law enforcement officers, and that those in charge of trying the facts tend to overwhelmingly convict based on out-of-court confessions, while underestimating the associated dangers. As a result, confessions have come to play a paramount role in the criminal justice system.

Many attempts have been made to deal with confession-based wrongful convictions. Examples include the Miranda rules or the requirements for varying degrees and types of corroborating evidence. To date, all the rules and proposals share a common characteristic: They all attempt to correct the evidentiary fallacies associated with out-of-court confessions by evidentiary means, whether admissibility oriented or weight oriented.

In the article we argue that none of the proposed mechanisms is likely to solve the problem. The root of the problem lies in the fact that the entire criminal justice system is currently organized around confessions. Law enforcement officers focus on obtaining confessions and the prosecution uses it as its evidentiary centerpiece. Further restricting admissibility or requiring a higher degree of corroboration will not change this trend. Moreover, the confessional lure is too strong to resist. Like the Sirens' Song, the confession casts a spell on all those subjected to it and, no matter how strong a corroboration we require, we will eventually fall back on the confession.

We propose an entirely different solution to the tendency to over-use confessions, one that utilizes penal means to change the incentive structure within the criminal justice system. We propose to incorporate into the sentencing guidelines a mandatory reduction of the criminal sanction whenever an out-of-court confession is introduced into evidence by the prosecution. In other words, our proposal is to elevate the cost of using out-of court confessions, as compared to other types of evidence. The article will demonstrate how placing such a "sentencing price tag" on the use of out-of-court confessions will correct the current bias in favor of using this evidence and induce law enforcement officials to seek extrinsic evidence, thus turning confessions into a residual evidentiary devise. The article will also show that the proposed regime will improve the court's ability to distinguish between true and false confessions. After discussing the proposed model's normative appeal, the article will proceed to deal with possible criticisms which can be leveled against it, whether retributive, utilitarian or expressive.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 48

Keywords: criminal procedure, confessions, false confessions, evidence

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Date posted: September 1, 2008  

Suggested Citation

Fisher, Talia and Rosen-Zvi, Issachar, The Confessional Penalty (August, 31 2008). Cardozo Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1261726

Contact Information

Talia Fisher
Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law ( email )
Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv 69978, IL
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )
124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Issachar Rosen-zvi (Contact Author)
Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law ( email )
Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv 69978, IL
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.tau.ac.il/Eng/?CategoryID=242&ArticleID=202
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