Coerced Confessions

Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 1-15

Coerced Confessions: The Logic of Seemingly Irrational Action

Richard Ofshe, Ph.D.


Although a vital part of the criminal-justice system, interrogation procedures employed by police seeking to extract confessions from suspects have been abused.  The case of Tom Sawyer is presented to illustrate how police can manipulate certain vulnerable suspects into confessing to and even believing they have committed crimes of which they have no memory and which evidence proves they could not have committed.  These unethically manipulative interrogation procedures can be conceptualized as a form of thought reform.

In a recent landmark study, Bedau and Radelet (1987) identified 350 instances of miscarriages of justice in which innocent persons were convicted of capital crimes in America.  In 49 of these cases, the cause of the miscarriage was a false confession elicited in response to coercion.(1)

This paper will present a brief summary report of a portion of a study (2) of four instances in which false confessions (3) to criminal acts were elicited from innocent individuals.(4)  The crimes to which these individuals confessed included one substantial theft and three exceptionally brutal murders.  In all four instances, the confession was the only evidence linking the suspect to the crime.(5)

Two of the accused murderers, George Abney and Peter Reilly, were subjected to trial.  Mr. Abney was acquitted.  Mr. Reilly was found guilty.  The Reilly verdict was overturned when it was discovered that the prosecutor had suppressed evidence proving Mr. Reilly to have been somewhere else at the time of the murder (Connery, 1977).

The third accused murderer, Tom Sawyer, succeeded in having his confession excluded from evidence in pre-trial motions.  The confession was suppressed when a judge ruled that it had been produced through the use of coercion.(6)

Because their confessions seemed so damning, neither Mr. Abney nor Mr. Sawyer was able to obtain bail.  George Abney spent eleven months in jail awaiting trial.  Tom Sawyer spent fourteen months in jail before being able to obtain bail.

The only evidence against Russel Weaver, the accused thief, was his confession.  It was coerced during an interrogation conducted by a private investigator hired by Mr. Weaver's employer.  The investigator was brought in to interrogate store employees about a supposed theft of several thousands of dollars of merchandise.  During the month prior to the interrogation Mr. Weaver had been attempting to unionize his fellow employees.  Mr. Weaver was singled out during the interrogation program and was pressured into admitting that he stole from the store.  He was promptly fired.  Mr. Weaver's employer never filed a police report or an insurance claim over the theft.  There is no evidence suggesting that a crime actually occurred.  The jury that heard Mr. Weaver's civil complaint about his treatment apparently reached this conclusion and awarded him over $400,000 in damages.

As treated in the leading text on interrogation tactics, Inbau, Reid, and Buckley (1986), the process of eliciting a confession is a tour de force of social influence.  According to these writers, a guilty suspect must be "persuaded" to confess.  The idealized guilty suspect is conceived to be a rational actor who can be controlled by manipulating his expected outcomes for different decisions.  The keys to persuasion are:

1.        Convincing the suspect that his situation is hopeless because the evidence against him is sufficient to produce a successful prosecution.  To this end, trickery, invention of evidence, and gross distortion of the significance of the evidence pointing to the suspect may be used to manipulate expectations.

2.        Manipulating the suspect's emotional state by attempting to make the stress of continuing to deny responsibility greater than the suspect's anxiety about admitting guilt.  To accomplish this, tactics designed to manipulate the suspect's emotions are brought into play to induce feelings of guilt and distress.  It is hoped that these aversive emotional experiences will drive the suspect to seek forgiveness through confession.

3.        Manipulating the suspect's expectations about the level of punishment that will follow from immediately confessing as opposed to continuing to hold to a denial of guilt.  The supposed advantage to be gained through cooperation and immediate confession is represented as the ability to demonstrate remorse and demonstrate the suspect's good character.  The implication of all of this is that the suspect will be less severely punished if he confesses.

Inbau, Reid, and Buckley suggest that it is permissible to deceive a suspect in order to create the belief that he has entered into a deal in which lenient treatment is to be exchanged for a confession.  These authors caution, however, that this is legally permissible only as long as the deal is not real.

Inbau, Reid and Buckley repeatedly warn their readers that the interrogation techniques they teach (as well as certain other techniques whose use is well known) can elicit false confessions from innocent suspects.  They do not, however, provide interrogators with either an understanding of why this can occur or sufficient insight into the phenomenon to identify when it may be happening in front of them.

The four people whose interrogations are commented on here are victims of the unconscious use of the sorts of interrogation tactics commonly practiced throughout the United States.  All four displayed substantial belief change and, for varying periods of time, became convinced that they had committed the crimes of which they were being accused.  They each came to believe in their guilt and acted on this belief by confessing.  They confessed despite having no memory of the crime that they had supposedly committed.

This report analyzes the process through which these individuals were influenced to believe in their guilt without the benefit of having any recall of their crimes.

Each of the false confessions discussed here was elicited in response to techniques which interacted with the personalities and vulnerabilities of the victims.(7)  This interaction resulted in reactions far different from what might be expected due to the routine application of the tactics  of psychological coercion generally present in police interrogations.

Zimbardo (1968, 1971) has analyzed the generally coercive aspects of the setting and tactics of police interrogations.  He identifies five categories of variables through which substantial psychological pressure is brought to bear on suspects during an interrogation.  Text writers, social psychologists, and experienced interrogators appear to agree that the interrogation setting is an arena in which powerful influence forces are brought into play for the purpose of manipulating suspects.  (There are, however, great differences of opinion among observers about the desirability of this state of affairs).

Although the possibility of false confession is acknowledged and given some attention in the interrogation literature, the working assumption in the interrogation analysis business is that the person being subjected to the interrogation is in truth guilty.  The usual legal and moral questions that are raised focus on the issue of defining the proper limits on the freedom of interrogators to employ powerful psychological techniques in their attempts to elicit confessions.  The key issue usually is, "has the pressure become so great that the target's will is overborne and is the confession therefore involuntary?"

The possibility that an innocent party might confess is never entirely disregarded.  Physical abuse or extreme fatigue are usually acknowledged as variables capable of causing an innocent person to comply with a demand for a confession.  Compliance in response to the use of these sorts of pressures is not likely to leave the person in doubt as to what caused the confession.

The interrogation literature is essentially silent on the rare but nevertheless significant, phenomenon of induced belief change leading to compliance with demands for confession.  Under certain circumstances, interrogation tactics can result in a reaction far more complex than that of compliance to a demand to admit to the truth of an accusation.

Relatively standard interrogation tactics applied to individuals possessing little self-confidence and particular sorts of vulnerabilities can produce the first signs of a thought reform reaction (i.e., brainwashing).(8)  The influence tactics routinely used in interrogations are sufficiently powerful to cause some innocent persons to at least temporarily come to believe that they have committed a serious crime.  Once convinced of their guilt, they are probably more than ordinarily likely to respond to the interrogation situations' ubiquitous pressures to admit quilt.

For the individuals discussed here, the key to developing belief in their guilt and, subsequently, to eliciting their false confessions, was to induce sufficient self-doubt and confusion to cause them to adjust their perceptions of reality.

All of these individuals were psychologically evaluated through clinical interviews and/or routine psychometric testing.  Not surprisingly, they were found to be somewhat more than usually trusting of authority, lacking in self-confidence, and more than ordinarily suggestible.  All were quite sane.  These personality factors together with aspects of their personal histories constituted the not very extraordinary vulnerabilities that interacted with the interrogation tactics brought to bear on them.

The process through which the victims were brought to confess involved establishing in their minds two specific beliefs that are "atypical" in run-of-the-mill interrogations and subjecting them to the "typical" influence procedures of an interrogation.  The "atypical" cognitions that the victims were influenced to accept were that:

1.        They committed the crime.  Despite their lack of any memory of having committed the crime there existed incontrovertible evidence of their guilt.

2.        There was a valid reason for their lack of memory.  There existed a plausible and applicable explanation for their lack of memory of the crime.

Once established, these two cognitions and the false confessions were produced in response to tactics which overwhelmed the victims.  The tactics included:

1.        Repeated displays of the interrogator's certainty of the victim's guilt through frequent accusations and frequent statements of the interrogator's confidence in his position.

2.        Isolation from information and social supports that differed from the interrogator's position about the victim's guilt.

3.        Lengthy interrogation under conditions of great emotional intensity.

4.        (In some cases) repeated claims of seemingly incontrovertible, scientific proof of the victim's guilt.

5.        (In some cases) repeated reminders about aspects of the victim's history which would tend to diminish his confidence in his ability to accurately remember the occurrence of the crime.

6.        Collective development by the police and the victim of an ad hoc explanation that seems to account for why the victim does not remember the crime.

7.        (In some cases) straightforward demands that the victim publicly accept the ad hoc explanation.

8.        (In some cases) tactics designed to induce fear that if the victim does not immediately comply with the interrogator's demand for a confession, the most severe of the possible punishments for the crime will result.

These interrogation procedures placed the victims in a position in which they became so unsure of themselves and so confused that they were unable to carry out ordinarily reasonable, rational evaluations of their situations or the information and choices the interrogators placed before them.

Tom Sawyer

To illustrate the steps through which this system of influence and belief cultivation can produce belief in guilt and an elaborate false confession, consider what happened to Tom Sawyer in November 1986 in Clearwater, Florida.  (The following description will only mention the most blatant of the influence tactics used against Mr. Sawyer.)

Tom Sawyer's next door neighbor was murdered by manual strangulation.  Her nude body was found in her bed.  She had been bound hand and foot and there were indications of her having been tortured.  The police believed that she had been sexually assaulted.  Her car was found at the local airport and her apartment had been arranged to give the appearance of having been broken into.  The attempt to leave a false trail was clumsy and didn't fool anyone.

Mr. Sawyer knew the murder victim only slightly.  He had had a small number of conversations with her.  A few nights before her death she had spent part of an evening watching television at his apartment.  They had never dated.  He had never been in her apartment or in her car.

The police had no viable suspects in the killing.  Both the married man and the unmarried man she had been dating had alibis for the evening of her murder.  The jealous homosexual lover of her homosexual former husband also had an alibi.

The police became suspicious of Mr. Sawyer solely because he seemed to them to be nervous when they spoke with him during routine interviews of the murdered woman's neighbors.  The detectives who became suspicious of Mr. Sawyer were unaware that he suffered from long-standing, severe social anxiety, which started when Mr. Sawyer was 14 years of age.  His anxiety attacks caused him to blush a deep red and sweat profusely in response to the simplest social interaction.  Several attempts to treat this condition had failed.

The detectives decided to lure Mr. Sawyer to the police station, to attempt to trap him into making some form of admission that would link him to the crime, and to attempt to get him to confess.  They had absolutely no evidence against him at the time this decision was made.  It was based solely on their "expertise" at reading demeanor.

The pretext used to lure Mr. Sawyer to the police station was the taking of a formal statement.  He had reported having seen the victim's car parked outside her apartment on the weekend that she was killed.

Mr. Sawyer arrived at the police station for his interview at about 4:00 p.m.  He had just completed a full day at his job as a landscape maintenance worker at a golf course.  The interrogation to which Mr. Sawyer was subjected lasted until 8:00 the next morning.

In response to questions about his general background, Mr. Sawyer discussed both his anxiety condition and the fact that he had been severely alcoholic for over a decade.  The alcoholism grew out of his attempts to medicate his anxiety condition.  For the preceding year he had been deeply involved with A.A. and had been completely sober.  He usually attended at least one A.A. meeting each day.

As a device for engaging Mr. Sawyer in conversation about the crime, the detectives asked him to help them create a scenario of how the murder might have happened.  They flattered him.  He was bright.  He watched detective shows.  They could be helped by a fresh perspective.  Mr. Sawyer was eager to help.  He was pleased to be important enough to help.  He joined in.

For several hours they discussed what was known to the public about the facts of the case.  The police led Mr. Sawyer through the development of several scenarios of how the crime might have occurred.  When the scenario-building session was over, the police asserted that Mr. Sawyer knew things only the killer could know and accused him of having committed the murder.

In the course of analyzing this interrogation the information flow during the scenario-building was tracked.  The police eventually claimed Mr. Sawyer knew nine facts that only the killer could have known.  Analysis of the interrogation transcript clearly shows, however, that Mr. Sawyer knew none of the things the police claimed he knew.  In every case, the crucial information was introduced into the interrogation by the police.

In some cases this was so subtly done that it is quite likely that at the time Mr. Sawyer was accused, the officers conducting the interrogation could not correctly recall the way in which many of the crucial pieces of information entered the story.  The record is, however, unambiguous.  The police, not Sawyer, introduced each piece of significant information.

Following his being accused, Mr. Sawyer repeatedly and strongly denied his guilt.  He had nothing to do with the murder.  He was never in her apartment.  His denials were firm and unequivocal.

The police obtained fingerprint and hair samples from Mr. Sawyer.  They suggested that he take a polygraph examination.  Mr. Sawyer believed that the polygraph examination was likely to report his truthfulness and thereby bring the police suspicions of him to an end.  He so firmly believed in the power of the polygraph that he thought that it could not be beaten by a guilty suspect.  Upset and desperate to prove his innocence, he readily agreed to the examination.

Tom Sawyer was so obviously upset immediately prior to taking the polygraph examination that one detective was moved to comment about his visible shaking.  Mr. Sawyer asked if the fact that he was sweating would affect the test.

Unbeknownst to Tom Sawyer, the police polygrapher objected to giving the test to a man who had been undergoing an accusatory interrogation for several hours.  He was ordered by his superior to administer the test and he did so.

After an appropriate delay for scoring, the polygrapher entered the interrogation room and announced to Mr. Sawyer that his was the worst flunk he had seen in his long career.  There was no doubt about it.  The test proved he was lying.

(Not only should the test not have been administered under these conditions since they invalidated the results, but subsequent re-scoring of the test by a polygraph expert revealed that the results obtained that night were uninterpretible.  A second polygraph conducted months later under more reasonable conditions resulted in a passing grade.)

Once told that the polygraph showed him to be lying, Mr. Sawyer's confidence in himself as well as his ability to resist the detectives' demands that he confess began to erode.  He was no longer able to issue strong, flat denials of his guilt.  He could only bring himself to assert that he still didn't believe he had done it.  It was not possible for him to have done such a thing.  It was not in his character.

Mr. Sawyer was never able to challenge directly either the validity or reliability of the test.  He was unable to reject its result in favor of his memory.  He began to accommodate to the new information he had received.  Unable to assert a direct rejection of the police-proffered information and unaware that they might be lying to him, Mr. Sawyer began to adjust to the polygraph result.  He acted as if it were his burden to convince the police of his innocence.

For their part, the police emphasized the scientific nature of the test and certainty of the result.  They also pointed out to Mr. Sawyer that when the fingerprint and hair sample results came back he would have no basis whatsoever for denying his guilt.  They were sure that he was guilty.  He knew too much.  The polygraph proved he was lying.  They were certain that the other lab tests would also confirm his guilt.

Pending return of the lab tests, Mr. Sawyer's main defense against their demands that he confess rested on his lack of memory of having committed the crime.  At this point an explanation began to be developed about why Mr. Sawyer didn't remember the killing.

Following the report of the polygraph result, the police response to Mr. Sawyer's denial of any memory of the crime was the assertion that he was blocking out his memory of the crime.  Trading on Mr. Sawyer's obvious shame about his alcoholism, the police told him that this was just like his having denied being an alcoholic for years.  They told him that if he didn't admit to the killing he would be driven back to alcohol.  The police told him that his unconscious was trying to reveal his guilt through the polygraph result.  None of this caused Mr. Sawyer to remember the killing.

The detectives asserted that Mr. Sawyer's inability to recall the time at which he fell asleep in front of his television on the night of the murder meant that he had had a black-out  --  just as he often had when he had been drinking.  Mr. Sawyer was vulnerable to this line of argument.  He could agree that he had frequently blacked-out periods of his memory during the years of very heavy drinking.  Although he reported that he had never heard of anyone blacking-out when sober, he wasn't sure that it could not have happened.

Mr. Sawyer was genuinely puzzled as to how, if he had committed the crime, he could have done so with no memory.  In an attempt to help solve the puzzle he introduced the possibility that perhaps because he had used an alcohol-based after-shave lotion he might have started to drink and subsequently blacked-out.  Farfetched as this sounds, the idea is not as wild as it might seem.

Mr. Sawyer had in fact heard this excuse used to account for why someone had fallen off the wagon at his A.A. meetings.  People who slip frequently offer improbable excuses for what set them off.

Although lacking any basis in fact, the idea that Mr. Sawyer had blacked-out for some unknown reason became the consensual explanation for his lack of memory.  The detectives were quite willing to accept any formulation that promised to get Mr. Sawyer to abandon the lack of memory issue as a barrier against acceptance of his guilt.  The detectives strongly supported this theory and Mr. Sawyer had no choice but to concur that this is what must have happened -- if he committed the crime.

The building blocks were now all in place, but the necessary mental bridge to belief in guilt was not complete in Mr. Sawyer's mind.  He still refused to fully accept the fact that he had committed the crime.  He deferred to the report of the polygraph but held out hope that the other tests would prove to the police that he was innocent.

In order to complete Mr. Sawyer's thought reform, the detectives decided to lie to him about the results of the laboratory tests.  They told him that his fingerprints matched prints found in the murder victim's apartment and in her car•  The police also lied to Mr. Sawyer when they reported to him that his hair samples matched hairs found on the victim's body.

Deception is an accepted tactic in interrogation.  A confession will not be suppressed merely because the police overstate the significance of evidence or fabricate reports of evidence.

With receipt of this information, Mr. Sawyer's resistance to believing in his guilt collapsed.  He agreed that "all the evidence was in" and that he must have committed the crime.

During the next period of the interrogation the detectives concentrated on attempting to get Mr. Sawyer to provide them with an accurate description of the crime.  Although he now believed in his guilt, belief could not provide him with details of events about which neither he nor the police had any information.  What followed was the development of a device that would allow Mr. Sawyer to literally make up stories about how the crime occurred.

Mr. Sawyer had the verbal habit of describing aspects of his mental activity in terms of pictures.  For example, early in the interview, when asked to recall information about a trivial point, he replied that he was trying to picture the scene about which they were talking.  He repeatedly used this metaphor to describe his thinking activity.  (It was simply a metaphor.  He saw no images and meant only that he was thinking.)

Fastening on this language, one of the detectives suggested that Mr. Sawyer try to picture the night of the crime and relate what he saw as he was asked questions.  When he commented that he didn't know if he was making up what he was saying, Mr. Sawyer was told not to worry about that.  Just report the pictures he saw.  They would later go back and determine what was true.  The situation was now structured so that the detectives could ask anything and Mr. Sawyer could freely fantasize answers.

During the course of this guessing game, Mr. Sawyer's story was continually shaped to conform to the facts of the case as the detectives knew them.  Elements of the story were changed and points the detectives believed to be true were worked in.  The leading and shaping was so heavy-handed that the term outrageous is appropriate.

Somehow the promise that truth would be evaluated later was forgotten.  The story Mr. Sawyer invented became the substance of his confession.  Inconsistencies with fact were ignored.  Mr. Sawyer's inability to contribute any new information was classified as an attempt to be tricky and to deceive the police.  What the police led him to say during the fantasy session was later offered as proof of his guilt.

A few examples of the shaping of the false confession follow:

The police believed that the victim had been sexually assaulted.  One detective thought he saw a semen stain on her buttock.  Since no one was sure which body cavity had been entered, Mr. Sawyer's confession was shaped to include both vaginal and anal rape.  The false confession was specifically shaped to include ejaculation because the stain had been observed.  When the medical examiner's report was received, no evidence of sexual assault was indicated.

The police believed that a kitchen knife had been taken by the killer.  Great pains were taken to include the taking of the knife as part of the story.  It was later discovered that the knife had been missing for months prior to the victim's death.

Mr. Sawyer was unable to tell the police where the victim's missing clothing could be found, where her missing keys could be found, or where the tape used to bind her could be found.

Late in the interrogation Mr. Sawyer was threatened with the death penalty if he did not cooperate.  This final threat was sufficient to coerce from him agreement to whatever the police indicated that they wanted him to say.  He admitted to committing the murder.  Even this threat, however, did not cause him to tell the police where the missing items might be found.  The obvious reason for this is that he did not know.

Mr. Sawyer spent 14 months in jail before the absurdity of his confession became sufficiently clear that he was allowed bail.  Despite having the confession suppressed and not having any other credible evidence, as of this writing it is probable that the State of Florida will attempt to bring Tom Sawyer to trial rather than admit to the errors that have already been made.


1.        Although Bedau and Radelet do not report the distribution of confessions induced through "third degree" coercion versus those produced through what they term "less brutal tactics", instances of both torture and psychological coercion contribute to their 49 cases.

2.        The research for this paper focused on the analysis of the transcripts of the recordings of the interrogations in the three cases (Sawyer, Abney, and Reilly).  Interviews were also conducted with Mssrs. Sawyer and Abney and depositions and other testimony of participants in these interrogations were reviewed.  The analysis of the Reilly case is based on the transcript and the account reported by Connery (1977).  In the Weaver case interviews were conducted with Mr. Weaver and others similarly coerced by the private investigator who interrogated him.  The depositions of all participants in the Weaver interrogation were reviewed.  The results of the research reported here were first made public in this writer's testimony at the motion to suppress Mr. Sawyer's confession, at the murder trial of George Abney, and in the civil suit brought by Mr. Weaver against his interrogator.

3.        As used here, a confession is considered false if it is elicited in response to a demand for a confession and is either intentionally fabricated or is not based on actual knowledge of the facts that form its content.  A false confession may be elicited from guilty as well as innocent parties.  Guilty parties may wholly or in part fabricate the substantive details of a confession.  Inbau et al. (1986) report that it is not uncommon for guilty parties to admit to the details of a crime in stages or to refuse to admit to certain elements of a crime.  This can occur while admitting to the central criminal act and while accurately describing most of the major elements of the crime.  A confession that accurately accounts for significant portions of the evidence should not be classified as a false confession.  It would be more reasonable to treat this as an example of a confession that includes elements designed to save face for the confessor or simply as an incomplete confession.

It must be considered as a possibility that a guilty party might choose to admit to a crime and also deliberately fabricate the details of the crime.  Although this outcome is logically possible, it is difficult to postulate motivational circumstances likely to produce this behavior.

4.        The cases reported on in this paper are treated as cases involving innocent parties confessing to serious crimes.  The determination that the person was innocent was made by a jury in the Abney case.  A jury initially decided that Reilly had killed his mother.  New evidence resulted in the overturning of the verdict.  In one case (Sawyer) the interrogation was suppressed by a judge because it was coerced and Sawyer's Miranda rights had been violated.  The coerced confession was the only evidence against Sawyer.  In the Weaver case there was no evidence that a crime had been committed.  Weaver sued over the emotional damages he suffered due to the interrogation and over wrongful termination.  The jury found in his favor and awarded over $400,000.

5.        Additional evidence was alleged to link the suspect to the crime in each case.  The additional evidence, was, however, invariably revealed to be erroneous or trivial or both.

6.        The charges against Mr. Sawyer have not been dismissed despite the collapse of the state's case.  One can only speculate as to why the state is unwilling to dismiss charges against an individual held in jail for 14 months on the strength of a faulty police report about what was said during a 14-hour-long interrogation that produced not one single piece of new information about the crime.

7.        The personalities and vulnerabilities of the victims were not extreme.  Although these individuals were evaluated as more than ordinarily suggestible, suggestibility alone does not explain their responses.  Their vulnerabilities probably contributed most significantly to the speed with which the process of thought reform could be carried out.

8.        See Ofshe and Singer (1986) for a review of the literature on the subject of thought reform.


Bedau, H, & Radelet, M. (1987).  Miscarriages of justice in potentially capital cases, Stanford Law Review, 40, 21-179.

Connery, D. (1977).  Guilty until proven innocent.  New York:  Putnam.

Inbau, F., Reid, J., & Buckley, J.  (1986).  Criminal interrogation and confessions.  Baltimore:  Williams and Wilkins.

Ofshe, R., & Singer, M.  (1986).  Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques.  Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 3-24.

Zimbardo, P. (June, 1968).  The psychology of police confessions. Psychology Today, 448-454.

Zimbardo, P.  (1971).  Coercion and compliance:  The psychology of police confessions.  In  C. Perruci & M. Pilisuk (Eds.),  The triple revolution emerging (pp. 492-508).  Boston:  Little Brown.


Richard Ofshe, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied thought reform for many years.  He shared a Pulitzer Prize for his work on Synanon, described in The Light on Synanon, Seaview Books, 1980.