For people who have never experienced a police interrogation, it can be hard to imagine why anyone would confess to a crime they did not commit. However, especially in Illinois, this situation occurs with startling frequency. According to the Innocence Project, an advocacy group for wrongfully convicted prisoners, about one in four DNA exoneration cases over the past 25 years has involved an innocent defendant who confessed or pled guilty.

Thanks in part to several high-profile DNA exonerations of people who were wrongfully convicted – in some cases after being tricked or coerced into incriminating themselves – public awareness of false confessions has been increasing in recent years. In Illinois, researchers and criminal defense advocates are working hard to shed light on the impact of false confessions and develop new strategies for protecting criminal defendants from their potentially devastating consequences. Still, for many people who admit to crimes they did not commit, the effects can never be fully undone.

Factors affecting the risk of false confession

In Illinois, Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions has collaborated with the University of Michigan Law School to create the National Registry of Exonerations, a new database that tracks wrongful convictions nationwide. Experts in the field say several factors may increase the risk that a person will admit to crimes they did not commit, such as:

  • The use of manipulative, coercive or deceptive interrogation techniques.
  • Fear of physical harm during the interrogation, whether the threat is real or perceived.
  • Misunderstanding the facts of the situation.
  • Being physically or emotionally exhausted, often as a result of the interrogation itself.
  • Lack of knowledge of the law.
  • Impaired reasoning ability caused by intoxication, mental disability or other factors.

According to a CWC representative quoted by the Wall Street Journal, juvenile defendants tend to be especially vulnerable to the risk of false confessions because they often focus more on short term goals, like ending the interrogation, than on the potential long-term consequences of confession. In addition, because juveniles are generally more deferential to authority and less knowledgeable of their legal rights than adults, they may be more vulnerable to manipulative interrogation tactics.

Illinois law helps protect against false confessions

The impact of wrongful confessions has been particularly acute in Illinois, where a large proportion of the nation’s DNA exonerations have taken place. According to a 2012 report by CBS News, Chicago has twice as many documented false confession cases as any other city in the U.S. In 2003, to help hold police interrogators accountable for their actions and protect criminal suspects from some of the interrogation tactics that can trigger false confessions, Illinois became the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring that all police interrogations be recorded.

Despite this precaution, however, many people end up incriminating themselves during the interrogation process, whether either directly or indirectly. People often get themselves into trouble by talking to police when they think they have nothing to hide, only to find that their statements may be twisted and used against them in ways they never anticipated.

Call a lawyer if questioned by police

If you or a loved one is questioned by police or charged with a crime in Illinois, remember that you have a constitutional right to remain silent and seek advice from a criminal defense lawyer. By exercising these rights and getting legal help right away, you can preserve your legal options and help to minimize the negative consequences of the arrest.