Facing charges for a crime you did not commit can be terrifying and overwhelming. It is not surprising, given the stress of the situation, that some choose the fastest route to a conclusion as possible, even if that means pleading guilty to a crime they did not commit.
Recently, a study conducted at Southern Illinois University demonstrated how often these false confessions might be occurring for those faced with criminal charges. The academic study took a group of 82 college students and placed them in a situation as close to charges of criminal misbehavior as possible.
The students were told they were going to be part of a study regarding problem-solving skills. They were told during one part of the study that they were not allowed to collaborate with their peers. Two students planted in the study convinced approximately half of the students to collaborate despite the prohibition.
Afterward, the professors accused all of the students involved in the study of having violated the rules on collaboration. Students were told they could choose to either fight the charges or admit to collaborating with their peers. Students were told if they fought the charges, they would be brought before a 10-12 person academic review board, and if they were found guilty, they would be required to take an ethics course for a semester. They were told guilty verdicts were typically reached in 80 to 90 percent of cases, which mimics average rates of conviction at trial.
The students were told if they admitted to the violations, they would no longer be included in the study and would not receive credit.
Although less than 50 percent of the students had actually violated the rule, almost 90 percent admitted to the violation. In addition, 55 percent of students who had not violated the collaboration rule admitted to doing so.
While the professors involved admitted they would never be able to capture the stresses of facing criminal charges in a court of law, the results of the study are instructive. The professors found there was “a strong compulsion to have the matter resolved even if it meant confessing to something that they really didn’t do.”
For those facing criminal charges for crimes they did not commit, it is particularly important to establish a strong legal defense. Consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney is the first step in ensuring their rights are protected.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Academic Study Shows Innocent Plead Guilty at High Rate,” John R. Emschwiller and Gary Fields, September 23, 2012.
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