Education for law enforcers on false confessions could reduce wrongful convictions

Law enforcement personnel, including police, should receive education and training about how to recognise false confessions to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in Australia, according to a leading psychologist speaking at the national conference of the Australian Psychological Society College of Forensic Psychologists in Noosa this weekend.

“It is a myth that people only confess to a crime if they are guilty and this false belief leads to many innocent people being charged with crimes, and subsequently convicted,” said Professor Paul Wilson, a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and a Research Fellow and Honorary Professor in Criminology at Bond University, who is presenting a keynote address at the Conference (4-6 August).

He added, “Psychological research reveals false confessions can occur when a person is either psychologically or physically pressured by police to confess.  In other cases, people confess not because they are guilty but because they seek fame, they are mentally unstable or they find the whole police interview process so stressful they will say anything to make it stop.”

Professor Wilson said UK research has found that false confessions are the second most frequent cause of wrongful conviction.

Conservative estimates put the rate of wrongful conviction at one per cent of all crimes. Based on national court figures this equates to 327 miscarriages for serious crimes throughout Australia and over 8500 for all crimes each year.

Professor Wilson said law enforcement personnel (police, lawyers, judges), and even jurors, should be educated to understand the psychological principles of false confession.

“Police, in particular, need training so they can detect people who may be confessing falsely and to ensure that their interrogation techniques don’t inadvertently promote false confessions,” he said.  “Research tells us a lot about the most effective interview techniques and how to solicit reliable testimony from suspects.” 

He said that forensic psychology and law enforcement must work together to identify false confessions as the costs of wrongful convictions to victims, the falsely accused and the community are high.

“No one benefits when the wrong person goes to jail,” he added.

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The Australian Psychological Society College of Forensic Psychologists National Conference is on August 4-6 in Noosa. More information is available at http://www.groups.psychology.org.au/cfp/2011-conference/
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About Paul Wilson

Currently a Research Fellow and Honorary Professor in Criminology at Bond University, Paul was also Foundation Dean of Arts at the Queensland Institute of Technology (1991-1993) and Dean Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University (1996-2001).
Prior to these appointments, he was Acting Director, and for six years, Director of Research at the Australian Institute of Criminology (1986-1991).  Paul has given evidence and written reports in many major cases involving violent offenders, the effects of solitary confinement  (and of imprisonment generally), and in a landmark case involving the  effects of forced settlement of indigenous Australians from their ancestral homes (the Alwyn Peters case).

Paul is the author or co-author of 30 books on crime and related social issues, the author of hundreds of academic journal articles and research reports on forensic and criminological issues. He is author or co-author of books such as ‘Black Death White Hands’, ‘Murder in Tandem and Murder of the Innocents: Child Killers and their Victims’, ‘The Australian Criminal  Justice System’ and more recently, books dealing with miscarriages of justice such as ‘Who Killed Leanne Holland’ and ‘Five Drops of Blood’.

In 2003, Paul was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for services to criminology. He is a listed expert in Psychology and Criminology to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. His recent publications and research have centred on miscarriages of justice and the characteristics of those involved in genocide.