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False Confessions and Sleep Deprivation

In more than 25% of exonerations proven by DNA evidence, the wrongfully convicted defendant had made a false confession or an incriminating statement during the police investigation. Various reasons have been put forward to explain why innocent defendants falsely confess during police interrogations. For example, a suspect with a mental disability is likely to acquiesce to and accommodate a police authority figure. Other suspects falsely confess due to statements made by police about the overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to the suspect's guilt. Exhaustion, length of interrogation, and deception by police during the interrogation have also been identified as factors that may lead to an innocent person falsely confessing to a crime she did not commit.

Recently, Michigan State University associate professor of psychology Kimberly Fenn published a study linking sleep deprivation to false confessions. Sleep deprivation may result during interrogation as a result of a lengthy interrogation conducted in the evening hours or as a deliberate strategy to induce a suspect to confess. The participants in this study were asked to complete basic computer tasks and were repeatedly warned that pressing the Escape key on the computer would erase all data. That evening, a group of participants received a full eight hours of sleep while another group remained awake all night. The following day, the participants were asked to sign a statement that falsely stated that the participant had pressed the Escape key during the session. The group of participants that did not sleep and had been awake for at least 24 hours was 4.5 times more likely to sign the statement despite its untruthfulness.

These results indicate that sleepiness can have significant effects on cognitive abilities. In reflection of this, the study's authors recommend that all interrogations be videotaped so that attorneys and judges may later evaluate the suspect's psychological state at the time of the confession.

By George Zulakis, Attorney at Law &

Elizabeth Kingston, Law Clerk

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