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Courts Should Allow Expert Testimony on False Confessions

Columnist Steve Chapman makes an excellent argument for the admission of expert testimony on false confessions. We think it's only a matter of time. We've successfully argued for the admission of expert testimony critiquing handwriting examiners and for psychological experts on memory to explain the fallacies of eyewitness evidence. The same arguments can be made for false confessions. As Chapman points out:

The record of wrongful convictions, however, indicates juries acting on their own instincts can be completely fooled. They often put too much weight on a defendant's self-incrimination and not enough on the pressures that led to it. That's why there are so many people sent to prison after confessing to things they didn't do. Hearing from an expert can overcome that tendency.

As a federal appeals court said in a 1996 decision overturning a conviction because the trial court rejected such testimony, "Even though the jury may have had beliefs about the subject, the question is whether those beliefs were correct. Properly conducted social science research often shows that commonly held beliefs are in error." Expert testimony "would have let the jury know that a phenomenon known as false confessions exists, how to recognize it, and how to decide whether it fit the facts of the case being tried."

Juries are regularly allowed to hear confessions from defendants and urged to believe them. Why shouldn't they be allowed to learn about the grounds for doubt? Anything that reduces the frequency of wrongful convictions ought to be embraced by prosecutors and police. False confessions aren't good for them or anyone else — except the guilty.

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