Why Suspects Confess

By David D. Tousignant, M.A.

Inspector Lowell, Massachusetts, Police Department

This article originally appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 1991.

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. Often times, 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 confession.

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 investigators.

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 first hand 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 involvement.

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.