When Exoneration Seems Hopeless: The Special Vulnerability of Sexual Abuse Suspects to False Confession

Ros Burnett, ed., Wrongful Allegations of Person Abuse, Oxford Univ. Press, 2015, Forthcoming

Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2014-25

31 Pages Posted: 17 Aug 2014 Last revised: 14 Oct 2014

See all articles by Deborah Davis

Deborah Davis

University of Nevada, Reno

Richard A. Leo

University of San Francisco - School of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2014

Abstract

This chapter considers sources of vulnerability among innocent sexual abuse suspects to police-induced false confession. We suggest that sexual abuse suspects may be particularly vulnerable to false confession, primarily as a result of their enhanced sense of hopelessness that they might be believed or be able to establish their innocence. Moreover, we suggest this sense of hopelessness derives largely from two factors: first, their perception of the evidentiary situation they face; and, second, stereotypes associating fathers, step-fathers, priests, boy scout leaders, day care personnel and others with sexual abuse. That is, we suggest sexual abuse claims are often characterized by (1) seemingly credible claims of one or more victims, (2) against a suspect whose social category is consistent with stereotypes of sexual abusers, (3) lack of concrete physical evidence that could exonerate the suspect, and (4) testimony of professional and nonprofessional witnesses in seeming support of the occurrence of the abuse and/or the suspect’s guilt that likewise cannot be refuted by concrete evidence. Sexual abuse suspects may therefore be less likely than most other innocent suspects to expect (a) that their claims of innocence will be believed in the absence of concrete proof of innocence, (b) that there will be a way to prove their innocence, or even (c) that there will be a way to effectively cast doubt on the validity of the alleged victim(s)’ claims of guilt or other apparently abuse supportive testimony. A primary goal of interrogation tactics is to instill in suspects such a sense of hopelessness, which then makes it easier for the interrogator to convince the suspect that confession will result in better legal outcomes than denial. For many sexual abuse suspects this goal may have been effectively met before they enter interrogation.

Keywords: criminal law, false confessions, wrongful convictions, interrogation, sexual abuse suspects, innocence

Suggested Citation

Davis, Deborah and Leo, Richard A., When Exoneration Seems Hopeless: The Special Vulnerability of Sexual Abuse Suspects to False Confession (August 1, 2014). Ros Burnett, ed., Wrongful Allegations of Person Abuse, Oxford Univ. Press, 2015, Forthcoming; Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2014-25. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2481397

Deborah Davis

University of Nevada, Reno ( email )

1664 N. Virginia St
Reno, NV 89557
United States

Richard A. Leo (Contact Author)

University of San Francisco - School of Law ( email )

2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

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