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Saul Kassin Probes Dangerous Practices in ‘Duped: Why Innocent People Confess-and Why We Believe Their Confessions’

By James M. Doyle

Do innocent people really confess to horrific crimes they did not commit?

Yes, they do. A masterful recent book from John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Saul Kassin, “Duped: Why Innocent People Confess—and Why We Believe Their Confessions,” proves it beyond any doubt.  

And Dr. Kassin’s book goes further than that. 

It shows how mobilizing scientific research about interrogations can reduce errors. Read this book and you will see how we can develop more information, get a better quality of information, and enhance the criminal system’s capacity to evaluate the information that we harvest. 

At the same time, Kassin’s analysis shows us why we can never guarantee that we have eliminated all mistakes—that questions of situated action will inevitably arise, and that room for human error in making judgments will always remain. 

“Duped” has too many virtues—clarity, balance, and comprehensiveness among them—for me to catalog them all here; you should really just read the book. 

But there are a couple of things to notice when you do. 

The Habit of Continuous Learning

Kassin is not the prototypical experthanding down wisdom from the podium to the students in the classroom and the apes on the frontlines—not a guy who has all the answers. “Duped” is a vindication of the idea that productive science is about asking good questions—the chronicle of a life of learning that treats its readers as fellow learners. 

Psychology’s efforts to inform the justice system about criminal investigation processes began early, with Hugo Munsterberg’s best-selling book “On the Witness Stand” in 1908. Then, things lay dormant for decades after legal eminence Dean John Henry Wigmore hit the “pause” button with a famous demolition of Munsterberg in an Illinois Law Review article in the following year. 

When the Psychology/Law dialogue was shaken awake in the 1970’s by Brooklyn College professor (and provocateur) Robert Buckhout’s polemics about eyewitness errors, Saul Kassin was right there on the scene—in fact, was drafted as a Brooklyn College undergraduate to be an unwitting subject in one of Buckhout’s demonstration experiments. 

Kassin’s next research played an impor
tant role in planting channel markers that guided controversies over science-based eyewitness evidence reforms into productive avenues. 

Then, with Lawrence Wrightsman, his postdoctoral mentor, Kassin undertook an examination of interrogation practices that he continues today, subjecting the folk wisdom of the practitioners to rigorous empirical testing. 

What Kassin saw through the social psychologist’s lens was disturbing.

Solutions Causing Problems

The interrogation landscape that Kassin encountered when he first turned his attention to interrogations exemplified the axiom “The cause of problems is solutions.”

The nearly universal “best practice” in American policing had coalesced around an interrogation method developed and publicized by Northwestern University Law Professor Fred Inbau and former Chicago detective John Reid. Both men had backgrounds in polygraph examinations. They saw themselves as reformers. 

The problem that Inbau and Reid had set out to address with their “Reid Method” was the widespread use by contemporary cops of the physical “third degree” as their primary tool for eliciting confessions. The only “best practices” required for that approach were things like using a telephone book rather than your fists to beat admissions out of suspects. (A telephone book won’t leave marks.)

Inbau, Reid, and their colleagues developed an effective interrogation method for eliciting confessions from the guilty. And although it was developed from practical experience and did not explicitly reference the social science literature, it could have. Its nine steps harnessed the power of isolation and stress, and linked it to providing suspects with opportunities to minimize their moral guilt while admitting legal guilt.

The danger that leaped out at social psychologists like Kassin from Reid manuals was that these same methods would extract confessions from the innocent too. 

Reid and Inbau themselves seemed to recognize this danger. 

Their materials were always explicit: the Reid Method was to be aimed only at the guilty. And today the training materials of their corporate successors continue to insist that “We don’t use this against the innocent.” The first phase in a Reid interrogation is to eliminate the innocent. 

But it hasn’t worked out that way in practice. 

As the National Registry of Exonerations reported last year, 365 (12 percent) of the 3060 wrongful convictions tallied by the Registry had involved false confessions. 

“Duped” anatomizes numerous cases—celebrated examples such as those of the Central Park Five and Amanda Knox, among many others—in which faulty application of the Reid method wrecked innocent lives and left the factually guilty free. 

Why Are We Doing This?

Lurking under the surface of these narratives is a question that combatants in decades of Psychology/Law controversies have never resolved: Are we doing this interrogation (or showing this photo array) to elicit information to guide our investigation, or are we trying to produce proof that will be admissible and persuasive in court? 

Those are two different goals, and they can often conflict.

If gathering the largest quantity and highest quality of information is your aim, you will obtain more by avoiding the focused, coercive Reid method, and using (for example) the “Cognitive Interview” approach. You would avoid asking photo lineup witnesses to make a categorical choice, and retrieve the confidence level for each lineup member instead.

On the other hand, if you want courtroom proof, not simply information, you will choose the conventional lineup or the psychologically focused Reid method to extract it.

There is a critical built-in tension underlying these decisions. 

The more you need the confession to fill a gap in your courtroom proof—in other words, the shakier your legal case—the more attractive (but also the more dangerous) mobilizing the Reid method during the interrogation in the police station will become.

There is a zone on the Venn diagram where innocence and the Reid method inevitably overlap. Ironically, as Kassin shows, the innocent men and women trapped in that zone are peculiarly vulnerable to Reid method pressures and more likely to offer a confession because they can tend to believe that their innocence will eventually be discovered. They are tired and frightened—so, they “confess”, believing that they will straighten it all out tomorrow.

And that danger zone inexorably expands. 

Practical Drift

Kassin’s case histories all describe investigators who were operating in systems under pressure. 

That pressure can have many sources. The media may be howling for a conviction. The crime may be particularly vicious; the suspect’s record particularly long; the victim especially sympathetic. You may have no neutral witnesses. The crime scene work and forensic lab capability may be so feeble that you have no hope of developing physical evidence—a confession may be your only hope. 

Your agency’s case closure rate could be down. Your training may have persuaded you—erroneously since the idea is a myth—that you and your fellow cops are qualified “human lie detectors” who have seen through protestations of innocence. 

Or, all of the above. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that the “guilt presumptive” Reid method will be mobilized in many borderline cases. 

And it shouldn’t be surprising when the border itself then shifts. Since every confession seems to provide its own justification, today’s confession provides the starting point from which to depart (just a little further) when considering whether and how relentlessly to deploy the Reid method tomorrow. “Practical drift” sets in; the deviations are “normalized.”

Eventually, the local system becomes more confession-dependent. Forensics capacity, investigative skepticism and the will to employ them all wither. (“Who needs DNA? He’ll confess.”) Safety degrades over time.

Systemic Disasters

Kassin sets out a solid psychologicalbasis in Duped for adopting a number of improvements in this situation. Avoid interrogations of the young and the cognitively challenged: they have been shown to be particularly vulnerable. Video record both preliminary interactions and interrogations: create the capacity to evaluate the full encounter, not just replay its final outcome. Ban the use of “minimization” techniques that dangle false promises of leniency in front of suspects and the “false evidence” ploy that bluffs them into believing the cops have catastrophically damning evidence of guilt.

He makes a solid case for comprehensive reform: adopting the non-accusatory P.E.A.C.E. interrogation method developed by police and psychologists in the United Kingdom. He explains why the legal system needs to investigate its own architecture with a new awareness of the psychological futility of its current protections against false confessions.

Nuance, Not Silver Bullet Solutions

Kassin is distinguished from most criminal justice critics by his steady awareness that he is dealing with a complex system—with humans trying to make sense of swirling conditions and influences that bend the probabilities—rather than with a Newtonian, mechanical system of “causes” with inevitable automatic effects. 

Kassin doesn’t offer “silver bullets.” He accepts that things are not neatly linear and sequential: for example, he sees that while “upstream” interrogations are affecting the “downstream” courtroom performance, the courtroom exigencies are shaping the “upstream” police station decisions too. He sees that forensic lab weaknesses can motivate interrogations, but that interrogation products can infect lab processes too. 

The special value of “Duped”—at least in my opinion—is that it doesn’t offer a prescription for an illusory perfection in criminal justice; it exemplifies an approach based on resilience: a continuous practice of learning about vulnerabilities and working to limit them and deflect the harms they can produce.

Even while Dean Wigmore was decapitating Hugo Munsterberg he was also advocating that psychologists and practitioners should join together in “A friendly and energetic alliance in the noble cause of justice.” 

In “Duped” Professor Kassin shows what that alliance can achieve, and he models how an ally can contribute. This story was originally published on The Crime Report.



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