Study: Long interrogations and exhaustion may promote false confessions

Research suggests that sleep deprivation resulting from custodial interrogations may make innocent people more likely to falsely confess.

False confessions occur more frequently and contribute to more wrongful convictions than many people in Chattanooga realize. The overall number of these confessions is difficult to track, since some are never identified. However, according to the Innocence Project, over one-quarter of individuals who have been exonerated based on DNA evidence gave false confessions or took other self-incriminating actions.

The factors that underlie these confessions may be varied and complex. However, recent research suggests that the common law enforcement practice of subjecting suspects to prolonged interrogations may contribute significantly to false confessions.

High false confession rates

During the study, 88 participants completed a series of tasks via computer over multiple sessions. According to Smithsonian magazine, the participants were warned not to touch the "escape" key, as this would delete all collected data. After two sessions, the researchers forced some participants to stay awake overnight, while others were allowed to sleep for eight hours. The researchers then accused each person of pressing the "escape" key and asked each one to sign a written confession.

The participants who had been kept awake all night were more than three times as likely to confess to this "crime." After the initial accusation, 50 percent confessed, while only 18 percent of the other participants agreed to sign the statement. After researchers made a second accusation, the overall rate of confessions among the sleep-deprived participants increased to 68.2 percent.

It's important to note that these participants weren't facing criminal charges or the serious consequences of a conviction. Still, these findings are troubling given the nature of many custodial interrogations. About 17 percent of accused individuals are interrogated overnight, between 12 a.m. and 8 a.m., when they may be exhausted. Furthermore, interrogations may last over 12 or 24 hours, and research shows that false confessions become more common as interrogation length increases.

Science of sleep deprivation

Prior research supports the assertion that people who are exhausted after prolonged interrogation may be at risk for harmful decisions, such as giving false confessions. Sleep deprivation can have numerous physical and mental effects that may increase a person's risk of confessing, including the following:

• Reducing impulse control and increasing susceptibility to external influences

• Limiting a person's ability to consider long-term consequences of a decision

• Impairing logical faculties, such as judgment and reasoning

According to The Washington Post, a recent study also has shown that sleep-deprived individuals may be likelier to develop false memories. Therefore, these individuals may be more at risk for giving false confessions without even realizing the confession is false.

There are many documented cases of these confessions occurring when wrongly accused individuals are sleep deprived. For instance, one innocent father who faced homicide and sex crime allegations admitted to committing both offenses against his daughter and one of her friends. The man reportedly had been awake for over 40 hours when he confessed. Later, DNA evidence proved that he was innocent.

Protecting against false confessions

Here in Tennessee, at least two of 23 individuals who have been exonerated of wrongful convictions gave false confessions, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The risk of such confessions may be especially high since state law does not require the recording of custodial interrogations. Without these recordings, identifying improper interrogation techniques or questionable confessions may be much harder.

Given the risk of false confessions, anyone accused of a crime in Tennessee should consider consulting with a defense attorney as soon as feasible. An attorney may be able to offer advice on alternate legal options and help a person develop a strategy for protecting his or her interests.