False Confessions

False confession is a leading cause of wrongful conviction. In 2015, 27 of 149 exonerations nationally involved false confessions1. Of those, 22 were homicide cases. The exonerees inmost of these cases were either juveniles at the time of the false confession or had limited mental capacity to understand the interrogation process and the potential consequences of a false confession. Numerous factors can contribute to a false confession, including the capacity and emotional state of the individual being questioned and the conditions and context of the interrogation. Those who are intoxicated, under duress, of diminished capacity, suffering from mental impairment, or ignorant of the law are more likely to falsely confess. Interrogation procedures that instill fear of violence, inflict actual harm, threaten a harsher sentence, use coercion or deception, include difficult physical conditions, or extend questioning for many hours also increase the likelihood of a false confession.

A Sample Case

NCIP exoneree Johnny Williams was wrongfully convicted after he falsely confessed to sexually assaulting a nine-year-old girl as she walked home from school on September 28, 1998. The victim reported being assaulted by a man who called himself “Johnny” and identified him as her attacker. Despite Mr. Williams’ appearance being quite different from the man described by the victim, Williams was arrested and subjected to a lengthy interrogation.
During the interrogation, Williams repeatedly denied committing the assault. Detectives repeatedly told Williams during the interrogation that they were not trying to prosecute him, but only wanted to help him. Only when police claimed to have security video, DNA evidence and dozens of witnesses linking Williams to the crime did he say, “I did it. I did everything.” He then immediately recanted. During the trial, prosecutors played portions of the recorded interrogation including Williams’ false confession. Williams was convicted and served 14 years in prison before NCIP used DNA evidence to prove his innocence, and the Alameda County Superior Court overturned the wrongful conviction.

Policy Reform

Videotaping custodial interrogations can help prevent wrongful convictions caused by false confessions. This practice can ensure careful interrogation procedures, document interrogation errors and capture evidence of false confessions when they do occur. More than 20 states currently require, through law or court action, videotaping custodial interrogations. Numerous law enforcement agencies voluntarily record interrogations. Studies show that videotaping custodial interrogations benefits police and prosecutors as well as innocent suspects.
NCIP supports statewide implementation of videotaping custodial interrogations in violent felony cases. In 2013, NCIP sponsored successful California Senate Bill 569, authored by Senator Ted Lieu, requiring that police departments videotape custodial interrogations of juveniles accused of murder. In 2016, NCIP is sponsoring California Senate Bill 1389, jointly authored by Senators Steve Glazer and Ed Hernandez, requiring that police departments videotape custodial interrogations of any person accused of murder.

¹ The National Registry of Exonerations. Exonerations in 2015. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Law School, February 2016.
Available at:

² See, for example, Matthew D. Thurlow, Lights, Camera, Action: Video Cameras as Tools of Justice, 23 J. Marshall J. Computer & Info. L. 771 (2005). See also Geller, William A. Videotaping Interrogations and Confessions. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 1993.