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                     WHY SUSPECTS CONFESS                       


                   David D. Tousignant, M.A.                             


           Lowell, Massachusetts, Police Department            


     Many criminal cases, even when investigated by the most

experienced and best qualified investigators, are ultimately

solved by an admission or confession from the person responsible

for committing the crime.  Oftentimes, investigators are able to

secure only a minimal amount of evidence, be it physical or

circumstantial, that points directly to a suspect, and in many

instances, this evidence is not considered strong enough by

prosecutors to obtain a conviction.  In such cases, the

interrogation of the suspects and their subsequent confessions

are of prime importance.

     This article addresses the question of why suspects speak

freely to investigators, and ultimately, sign full confessions.

The physical and psychological aspects of confession and how

they relate to successful interrogations of suspects are also

discussed, as is the "breakthrough," the point in the

interrogation when suspects make an admission, no matter how

minuscule, that begins the process of obtaining a full


DEFINING INTERROGATION                                            

     Interrogation is the questioning of a person suspected of

having committed a crime. (1)  It is designed to match acquired

information to a particular suspect in order to secure a

confession. (2)  The goals of interrogation include:

     *  To learn the truth of the crime and how it happened

     *  To obtain an admission of guilt from the suspect             

     *  To obtain all the facts to determine the method of

        operation and the circumstances of the crime in question

     *  To gather information that enables investigators to arrive 

        at logical conclusions                                            

     *  To provide information for use by the prosecutor in

        possible court action. (3)

     Knowing the definition and objectives of the interrogation,

the question then asked is, "Why do suspects confess?"

Self-condemnation and self-destruction are not normal human

behavioral characteristics.  Human beings ordinarily do not

utter unsolicited, spontaneous confessions. (4)  It is logical

to conclude, therefore, that when suspects are taken to police

stations to be questioned concerning their involvement in a

particular crime, their immediate reaction will be a refusal to

answer any questions.  With the deluge of television programs

that present a clear picture of the Miranda warning and its

application to suspects, one would conclude that no one

questioned about a crime would surrender incriminating

information, much less supply investigators with a signed, full

confession.  It would also seem that once suspects sense the

direction in which the investigators are heading, the

conversation would immediately end.  However, for various

psychological reasons, suspects continue to speak with


SUSPECT PARANOIA                                                  

     Suspects are never quite sure of exactly what information 

investigators possess.  They know that the police are 

investigating the crime, and in all likelihood, suspects have 

followed media accounts of their crimes to determine what leads 

the police have.  Uppermost in their minds, however, is how to

escape detection and obtain firsthand information about the

investigation and where it is heading.

     Such "paranoia" motivates suspects to accompany the police

voluntarily for questioning.  Coupled with curiosity, this

paranoia motivates suspects to appear at police headquarters as

"concerned citizens" who have information pertinent to the case.

By doing this, suspects may attempt to supply false or

noncorroborative information in order to lead investigators

astray, gain inside information concerning the case from

investigators, and remove suspicion from themselves by offering

information on the case so investigators will not suspect their


     For example, in one case, a 22-year-old woman was

discovered in a stairwell outside of a public building.  The

woman had been raped and was found naked and bludgeoned.

Investigators interviewed numerous people during the next

several days but were unable to identify any suspects.  Media

coverage on the case was extremely high.

     Several days into the investigation, a 23-year-old man

appeared at police headquarters with two infants in tow and

informed investigators that he believed he may have some

information regarding the woman's death.  The man revealed that

when he was walking home late one evening, he passed the area

where the woman was found and observed a "strange individual"

lurking near an adjacent phone booth.  The man said that because

he was frightened of the stranger, he ran back to his home.

After reading the media accounts of the girl's death, he

believed that he should tell the police what he had observed.

     The man gave police a physical description of the

"stranger" and then helped an artist to compose a sketch of the

individual.  After he left, investigators discovered that the

sketch bore a strong resemblance to the "witness" who provided

the information.

     After further investigation, the witness was asked to

return to the police station to answer more questions, which he

did gladly.  Some 15 hours into the interrogation, he confessed

to one of his "multiple personalities" having killed the woman,

who was unknown to him, simply because the victim was a woman,

which is what the suspect had always wanted to be.

     This case clearly illustrates the need for some suspects to

know exactly what is happening in an investigation. In their

minds, they honestly believe that by hiding behind the guise of

"trying to help," they will, without incriminating themselves,

learn more about the case from the investigators.


     In any discussion concerning interrogation, it is necessary

to include a review of the surroundings where a suspect is to be

interrogated.  Because there is a general desire to maintain

personal integrity before family members and peer groups,

suspects should be removed from familiar surroundings and taken

to a location that has an atmosphere more conducive to

cooperativeness and truthfulness. (5) The primary psychological

factor contributing to successful interrogations is privacy--

being totally alone with suspects. (6)  This privacy prompts

suspects to feel willing to unload the burden of guilt. (7)  The

interrogation site should isolate the suspect so that only the

interrogator is present.  The suspect's thoughts and responses

should be free from all outside distractions or stimuli.

     The interrogation setting also plays an important part in

obtaining confessions.  The surroundings should reduce suspect

fears and contribute to the inclination to discuss the crime.

Because fear is a direct reinforcement for defensive mechanisms

(resistance), it is important to erase as many fears as

possible. (8)  Therefore, the interrogation room should

establish a business atmosphere as opposed to a police-like

atmosphere.  While drab, barren interrogation rooms increase

fear in suspects, a location that displays an open,

you-have-nothing-to fear quality about it can do much to break

down interrogation defensiveness, thereby eliminating a major

barrier. (9)  The interrogators tend to disarm the suspects

psychologically by placing them in surroundings that are free

from any fear-inducing distractions.

PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS                                             

     More than likely, suspects voluntarily accompany

investigators, either in response to a police request to answer

questions or in an attempt to learn information about the

investigation.  Once settled in the interrogation room, the

interrogators should treat suspects in a civilized manner, no

matter how vicious or serious the crime might have been.  While

they may have feelings of disgust for the suspects, the goal is

to obtain a confession, and it is important that personal

emotions not be revealed. (10)

    Investigators should also adopt a compassionate attitude and 

attempt to establish a rapport with suspects.  In most cases, 

suspects commit crimes because they believe that it offers the 

best solution to their needs at the moment. (11)  Two rules of

thumb to remember are:  1) "There but for the grace of God go

I"; and 2) it is important to establish a common level of

understanding with the suspects. (12)  These rules are critical

to persuading suspects to be open, forthright, and honest.

Suspects should be persuaded to look beyond the investigators'

badges and see, instead, officers who listen without judging.

If investigators are able to convince suspects that the key

issue is not the crime itself, but what motivated them to commit

the crime, they will begin to rationalize or explain their

motivating factors.

     At this stage of the interrogation, investigators are on

the brink of having suspects break through remaining defensive

barriers to admit involvement in the crime.  This is the

critical stage of the interrogation process known as the



     The breakthrough is the point in the interrogation when

suspects make an admission, no matter how small. (13) In spite of

having been advised of certain protections guaranteed by the

Constitution, most suspects feel a need to confess.  Both

hardcore criminals and first-time offenders suffer from the same

pangs of conscience. (14)  This is an indication that their defense

mechanisms are diminished, and at this point, the investigators

may push through to elicit the remaining elements of confession.

     In order for interrogators to pursue a successful

breakthrough, they must recognize and understand certain

background factors that are unique to a particular suspect.

Many times, criminals exhibit psychological problems that are

the result of having come from homes torn by conflict and

dissension.  Also frequently found in the backgrounds of

criminals are parental rejection and inconsistent and severe

punishment. (15)  It is important that investigators see beyond

the person sitting before them and realize that past experiences

can impact on current behavior.  Once interrogators realize

that the fear of possible punishment, coupled with the loss of

pride in having to admit to committing mistakes, is the basic

inhibitor they must overcome in suspects, they will quickly be

able to formulate questions and analyze responses that will

break through the inhibitors.

SUCCESSFUL INTERROGATIONS                                         

     Investigators must conduct every interrogation with the

belief that suspects, when presented with the proper avenue,

will use it to confess their crimes.  Research indicates that

most guilty persons who confess are, from the outset, looking

for the proper opening during the interrogation to communicate

their guilt to the interrogators. (16)

     Suspects confess when the internal anxiety caused by their

deception outweighs their perceptions of the crime's

consequences. (17)  In most instances, suspects have magnified,

in their minds, both the severity of the crime and the possible

repercussions.  Interrogators should allay suspect anxiety by

putting these fears into perspective.

     Suspects also make admissions or confessions when they

believe that cooperation is the best course of action. (18)  If

they are convinced that officers are prepared to listen to all

of the circumstances surrounding the crimes, they will begin to

talk.  The psychological and physiological pressures that build

in a person who has committed a crime are best alleviated by

communicating. (19)  In order to relieve these suppressed

pressures, suspects explain the circumstances of their crimes

they confess.

     And, finally, suspects confess when interrogators are able

to speculate correctly on why the crimes were committed.

Suspects want to know ahead of time that interrogators will

believe what they have to say and will understand what motivated

them to commit the crime.


     It is natural for suspects to want to preserve their

privacy, civil rights, and liberties.  It is also natural for

suspects to resist discussing their criminal acts.  For these

very reasons, however, investigators must develop the skills

that enable them to disarm defensive resistors established by

suspects during interrogation.  Before suspects will confess,

they must feel comfortable in their surroundings, and they must

have confidence in the interrogators, who should attempt to gain

this confidence by listening intently to them and by allowing

them to verbalize their accounts of the crimes.

     Interrogators who understand what motivates suspects to

confess will be better able to formulate effective questions and

analyze suspect responses.  Obviously, more goes into gaining a

confession than is contained in this article.  However, if the

interrogator fails to understand the motivations of the suspect,

other factors impacting on obtaining the confession will be less



     (1)  Charles E. O'Hara and Gregory L. O'Hara, Fundamentals

of Criminal Investigation, 5th ed. rev. (Springfield, IL:

Charles C. Thomas, 1988), p. 117.

     (2)  W. E. Renoud, Criminal Investigation Digest (Springfield, 

IL:  Charles C. Thomas, 1981), p. 10.                             

     (3)  John J. Horgan, Criminal Investigations, 2d ed. (New

York, NY:  McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1979), p. 78.

     (4)  Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, and Joseph P. Buckley,

Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 3d ed. (Baltimore, MD:

Williams & Wilkins, 1986), p. 16.

     (5)  Robert F. Royal and Steven R. Schutt, The Gentle Art

of Interviewing and Interrogation:  A Professional Manual and

Guide (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), p. 56.

     (6)  Supra note 4, p. 24.                                        

     (7)  Charles R. Swanson, Jr., Neil Chamelin, and Leonard

Territo, Criminal Investigation, 4th ed. (New York, NY:  Random

House, 1988), p. 210.

     (8)  Supra note 5, p. 57.                                        

     (9)  Ibid.                                                       

     (10)  Supra note 2, p. 12.                                       

     (11)  Ibid., p. 13.                                              

     (12)  Ibid., p. 13.                                              

     (13)  Supra note 5.                                              

     (14)  Supra note 7.                                              

     (15)  James C. Coleman, James N. Butcher, and Robert C.

Carson, Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, 7th ed. (Glenview,

IL: Scott Foresman and Company, 1984), p. 261.

     (16)  Supra note 7, p. 209.                                      

     (17)  John Reid and Associates, The Reid Technique of

Interviewing and Interrogation (Chicago, IL:  Reid & Associates,

1986), p. 44.

     (18)  Supra note 5, p. 115.                                      

     (19)  Supra note 7, p. 209. 

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