Innocence Project and Suggestive Police Interrogation Techniques

In addition to confabulation, suggestive police interrogation techniques are also associated with compliant false confessions (Kassin, 2008, 2015). In this situation, the subject confesses in an act of compliance, in order to escape a stressful interrogation, avoid physical or legal punishment or because they are led to believe that confession serves their self-interest (Kassin, 2008, 2015). The suspect knows that he or she is innocent, but at the moment of interrogation, the short-term benefit prevails the long-term consequences of confession (Pearse, Gudjonsson, Clare, & Rutter, 1998). These compliant false confessions do not include false memories (Kassin, 2008).

A real life example in which the effect of suggestive interrogation is shown, is in a case originating from 1988 (Innocence Project, n.d.). On November 29, a 74-year-old woman was shot twice in the head, hit with a railroad tie and beaten to death. The police quickly identified Frank Sterling as a possible suspect. Sterling was 25 years old at the time, had no criminal record or history of violent behaviour and had an alibi. After stalling the case due to lack of evidence, it was reopened in 1991 by a new investigative team. After returning from a 36-hour trucking job, Sterling was approached and interrogated for more than eight hours, starting in the afternoon and continuing until the following morning.

While maintaining his innocence but saying he had trouble remembering, he was interrogated using several highly suggestive methods, including the suggestion of details. After an exhausting eight-hour interrogation, Sterling confessed. He complied with a videotaped confession that included numerous inconsistencies. In the end, the alleged evidence consisted almost entirely out of the false confession and Frank Sterling served more than 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. However, DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence and this led to his exoneration in 2010 (Innocence Project, n.d.). Although it is likely that Frank Sterling acted out of compliance, the interrogation tactics that were used by the police could eventually cause distrust in his own memory and the formation of an internalized false memory. The case of Frank Sterling is one of many cases in which suggestive interrogation techniques have led to wrongful convictions. According to Porter and Baker (2015), a quarter of these wrongful convictions is due to false confessions.