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The restorative justice toward the era of decreasing birthrate and aging populationFalse Confession and Wrong Conviction

writer: YAMADA, Saki (Ritsumeikan Global Innovation Research Organization, Researcher) published: 2016-10

What is a false confession?

Picture the following situation of the sort often seen in police TV shows, in which an investigator questions a suspect (a person suspected of having committed a criminal act) in an interrogation room:
  Investigator: “You did it”
  Suspect: “I didn’t do it”
  Investigator: “I know you did it.” “Confess and feel relieved”
  Suspect: “…I did it”
In this situation, the suspect eventually confesses to a crime they had originally denied after being questioned by the investigator. If the suspect is in fact guilty of the crime concerning which they are being questioned, then their initial statement that they “didn’t do it” was a lie. But if they are an innocent person with no knowledge of the crime, “I didn’t do it” was a true statement. In the case of the former it is easy to imagine that this is a lie told by a guilty person to escape their crime, and in the case of the latter we can understand it as the natural response of an innocent person describing their actual experience. But what about the suspect’s “…I did it”? If they are actually the perpetrator it is simply a true statement acknowledging what they have done. If, on the other hand, they are innocent, then this is a false statement acknowledging something they did not actually do. In the case of the former, it is easy to imagine that the suspect confessed because they could not endure the questioning of the investigator. But in the latter case, in which the statement is a lie, it would seem that the suspect has said something that is not at all in their own interest. Confessing to a crime one did not commit in this way is called a “false confession.” Why do innocent people make false confessions?

The state of mind that leads to a false confession

In Japan, a person can be held for a maximum of twenty-three days after being arrested, during which time they undergo questioning by an investigating authority. During this long period of being held in custody, the suspect is cut off from ordinary life, and most of their time is spent being interrogated by investigators. During this period, if the suspect is innocent they know that they did not commit the crime in question, and firmly believe “if I talk to them they will realize their mistake.” The investigators, however, believe the suspect in front of them “is the perpetrator,” and keep interrogating the suspect until they say, “I did it.” As this back and forth of “you did it” and “I didn’t do it” is repeated over and over again, without knowing how long this situation may last the suspect is gradually made to feel powerless, and is eventually driven to a state in which they have no choice but to say, “I did it.” And it is not over once they have made this admission a single time. Next the investigators demand a detailed “narrative of the crime.” Since they did not in fact experience the events in question, at first the suspect cannot say anything. They roughly describe how they imagine things might have happened, and then, while receiving hints from the investigators and revising their story, eventually construct a “credible” narrative of the crime (See Sumido, Hamada, Jihaku no shinrigaku [The psychology of confession], Iwanami Shoten, 2001). Even though this narrative has been based on hints from the investigators, since the suspect has constructed it themselves on the surface it appears they have provided a “credible” story on their own.

A case in which a false confession was not identified

When an elementary school-aged girl was killed in a fire in Higashisumiyoshi-Ward, Osaka city (the “Higashisumiyoshi case”), the girl’s mother and a man living together were sentenced to life in prison for the crimes. On August 10th, 2016, however, they got acquitted in the retrial. During the investigation, both had confessed to kill the girl for her insurance money. The verdict of not guilty at their retrial, however, was made with this confession excluded from the evidence. A judgment made on the basis of the incorrect evidence of a false confession is one of the factors that gives rise to this kind of damaging false accusation. Not only in this case, but in most other incidents in which a not guilty determination was made at retrial, false confession had been recorded. As identifying false confessions is one measure to prevent wrong convictions, further research on false confessions is therefore required.
(Another major issue is the fact that it takes a so long time for a person to be exonerated in just like this case in which they have been found guilty without having actually committed the crime).

“Enzai Kyusai Center” Project

“Enzai Kyusai Center: Innocence Project Japan (IPJ),” a new group to help victims of this kind of wrong conviction, was formed in April 2016, mainly by researchers at Ritsumeikan university. IPJ look at the success of “Innocence Project” in the U.S. Along with aiding victims of false accusation who have been prosecuted for crimes they did not commit (or behavior that is not criminal), IPJ also aims to find scientific strategies and propose policies to prevent wrong convictions. Our “Enzai Kyusai Center” Project is conducting research to support the IPJ’s work from the perspectives of ➀Legal Informatics,➁ Psychology and Law, and ➂Forensic Science. Concerning the issue of false confessions discussed above, for example, it includes developing analysis concerning the falseness of confessions from the point of view of Statement Psychology and experimental verification of the judgment process of judges and lay judges concerning audio and video recordings of interrogations. For more victims of wrong conviction, surely more diverse forms of scientific and academic support must be pursued.

Related projects

  • The restorative justice toward the era of decreasing birthrate and aging population (Ritsumeikan Global Innovation Research Organization)


Ritsumeikan Journal of Human Sciences


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Institute of Ars Vivendi. Ritsumeikan Univ.