In a recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, police interrogation tactics are investigated, particularly interrogations that usher false confessions. Oliver conveyed interrogation scenes on TV are ever popular with viewers due to their dramatic impact. But audiences aren’t the only ones who find interrogations persuasive; juries find them highly compelling. Oliver remarked confessions are often considered more significant than even DNA evidence and labeled the “gold standard” for indicators of guilt.

Ronald Gold, a juror, described his rationale for taking interrogation evidence at face value as being “very hard to imagine why anybody would make up something that not only incriminates them[selves] but is full of details that sounded like it [the event or crime] actually happened” However Mr. Gold was reflecting on his time as a juror for the case of “The Central Park Five,” or as they are now known as, The Exonerated Five, as their confessions were years later proven not only false but police-coerced. The Black and Latino men at the center of the case, who served from 6 years to over 13 years in prison, were exonerated in 2002 when the already convicted murderer and serial rapist, Matias Reyes, came forward and confessed the crimes.

Oliver noted that out of all convictions overturned by DNA testing, 29% involved convictions based on false confessions.

In a clip shown in the episode, investigative journalist Bill Hughes, covering a false confession case, was interviewed by NBC’s Lester Holt. Hughes stated, “A skilled investigator could probably get you or I to admit we kidnapped the Lindberg baby.”

Interview and Interrogation Tactics

Police interrogation room tactics can be successful, yet, they have also led to countless coerced confessions. The history of interrogation by officers has not always reflected our constitutional rights.

The “third-degree” technique (essentially torturing suspects for confessions) was common practice by investigators for decades in America. Thankfully, in 1936, the method of physical corrosion was ruled unconstitutional by The Supreme Court.

However, today’s techniques can still place innocent people under extreme conditions, often resulting in individuals seeking relief from excessively uncomfortable situations through false confessions.

The Reid Technique has been widely adopted as a popular method for interrogating suspects. The Reid Technique is named after one of its principal creators, the late John E. Reid. Reid was a Chicago police officer, psychologist, and self-proclaimed “polygraph expert.” The technique involves three phases and nine interrogation steps in a highly stressful environment that the interviewer creates.

The Reid Training Program has trained hundreds of thousands of officers.

The interview and interrogation stages are the primary phases of questioning people under the technique. The interview stage is intended for determining if one is a suspect. In the interview stage, the investigator evaluates truthfulness based on answers to questions posed by interviewers. Oliver remarks the answers are then used to establish a baseline with the entire process reminiscent of a polygraph test. Behavior-provoking questions follow analyzing verbal and critical non-verbal behavior (such as arm-crossing, also known as a barrier pose). However, this behavior analysis is not based on a foundation of science (as the Reid Company admits) but simply on observations. Oliver illustrates with science-based research that the Reid interview method has roughly a 50/50 accuracy rate, essentially a “coin toss.”

Research has revealed that arm crossing and eye-blinking are not reliable deception indicators. Oliver notes that if an officer uses the Reid method and the interviewee meets the criteria to continue the interrogation phase, they are “in big trouble.”

How Innocent People Confess

Under the Reid method, the interrogation phase has officers trained to steer suspects to confession and confession alone, away from any other conversation. The Reid method instructs officers to intervene anytime an individual says, “will you please listen to me” or utters the words “I didn’t do it.” A clip from a Reid company training video shown by Oliver depicts that the more often a subject states, “I didn’t do it,” the harder it is to get an individual to succumb and confess. As John Oliver explains, an interrogation can last over a dozen hours, grinding an individual down. From a study published in The North Carolina Law Review, Oliver reported that false confessions arose after an average of 16.3 hours of interrogation. The study aligns with the findings of many researchers; lengthy interrogations during which innocent suspects are essentially exhausted by coercive tactics frequently result in false confessions.

Many commonly relied upon techniques in interviews and interrogations have been studied and found to put innocent people in danger of false confessions.

Oliver explains that people may assume after a false confession that an individual can retract their statement, or the factual evidence will “prevail and clear them.”

However, this is unlikely as once the police obtain a confession, investigations typically halt.

What about my rights and right to an attorney?

The right to an attorney is constitutional, so why don’t people use it? For several understandable reasons, such as knowing they didn’t do anything wrong or assuming they are being brought in as a witness, as Oliver explains, 80% of people waive their Miranda rights and consent to police interrogation.

Without legal representation, you can be left incredibly vulnerable. A lawyer can alert you to the extraordinary powers granted by the US Supreme Court to officers. In an interview with Holt, Saul Kassin, a psychology professor, clarifies, “In the U.S., a detective can legally lie about the evidence to a suspect. It is lawful for detectives to turn to their suspect and say, ‘You say you didn’t do that, but we have your fingerprints on the murder weapon …'”

Exercise Your Right to an Attorney

The tactics and powers described above are only some of those that officers employ.

If you have been involved in a criminal case, you should never waive your rights and always ask to consult an attorney. Often individuals under arrest or being questioned by police feel the need to be as helpful as possible.

However, never feel pressured to make conversation with officers, and remember to exert your rights, such as contacting a Boulder Colorado Criminal Defense Attorney.

Additionally, there is a common misconception that consulting an attorney is admission to guilt. However, this simply is not true. A skilled attorney can help you protect, advocate, and exercise your rights and support you in establishing and maintaining your innocence.