Confessions in the Courtroom


Lawrence S. Wrightsman & Saul M. Kassin

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    Problems raised by confession evidence are just as basic to the administration of criminal justice and just as important as problems with eyewitness testimony. Yet for reasons that are unclear to us, in contrast to the massive numbers of eyewitness studies, the topic of confession evidence has been almost completely ignored by psychologists and other social scientists. This book seeks to rectify that discrepancy. Our approach builds upon the methods, theories, and concepts of psychology; whether the focus is on the police methods of interrogation, their effects on suspects, or the jury's reaction to the evidence, the approach of social psychology offers a fruitful perspective.

    This is an appropriate time to examine the role that confessions play in the administration of criminal justice in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case Arizona v. Fulminante, discussed in detail in this book, has caused a reassessment of the acceptability of confessions generated under duress. Our goals in this book are, first, to examine how the legal system has, over the last half century, evolved its concept of the proper way to treat confessions, and then to examine psychological perspectives on why people confess and how other people, especially jurors, react to confessions. In looking at the causes of confessions, we carefully examine the interrogation procedures used by police. We evaluate the process for determining whether a confession should be admitted as evidence in a trial. We summarize our program of research on jurors' reactions to voluntary and coerced confessions. We attempt to assess the impact of the Fulminante decision on the future of these phenomena.

    Our aim is to provide the first comprehensive multidisciplinary account of the state of criminal confessions in the United States today. The more than 170 references we cite range from reports of psychological research to appellate court decisions to descriptions of trials by journalists. Our audience is social scientists, attorneys, and members of the justice system who seek a readable and objective treatment of this topic. Our hope is that this book will contribute to the recognition that confession evidence is not only a topic of concern to our society, but also a topic worthy of increased investigation.


    This is the fourth book that the two of us have authored or edited for Sage Publications on aspects of the court system. We are indebted to C. Terry Hendrix, Senior Editor of Sage Publications, for encouraging us to develop our ideas and for identifying topics of interest to scholars and professional persons. The staff of Sage Publications continue to be a model for what a publishing company should be in regard to helpfulness to authors.

    We have benefited also from the assistance of students and colleagues in the preparation of this book. At the University of Kansas, Teddy D. Warner (now on the faculty of Iowa State University) was a co-author on some of the research described in Chapter 6. Chris Bauer prepared a draft of the report on the Bernhard Goetz confession. Don Christie analyzed police manuals. Jennifer Gottschalk and Stacey Stranathan did library research and analyzed data. Laura Shaw facilitated an improvement in the description of details from the Fulminante case. Among the faculty, Professor Pete Rowland of the Department of Political Science clarified court decisions and Professor David Holmes brought several significant pieces of research to our attention.

    At Williams College a number of students have been co-authors in the program of research described in Chapter 6; these include Marisa E. Reddy, William F. Tulloch, Karlyn McNall, Holly Sukel, Lee Kiechel, and John Facciani.

    We value the comments of K. C. Scull on Chapter 3. We are unable to list the names of all of the journalists, attorneys, and judges with whom we have discussed confessions evidence but we have learned from the opportunity to interrogate them. Of course, any errors or misinterpretations in this book are our responsibility and not that of our colleagues, students, or consultants.

    Finally, a special set of thanks is offered to Katia Silva, who typed several drafts of this manuscript with unfailing enthusiasm, impressive accuracy, and unbelievable promptness.

    Lawrence S.Wrightsman
    Saul M.Kassin
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    Name Index

    About the Authors

    Lawrence S. Wrightsman (Ph.D., University of Minnesota, 1959) is Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He is an author or editor of 17 books, about half of which deal with criminal justice issues. These include Psychology and the Legal System (1991), The American Jury on Trial (1988), In the Jury Box (1987), On the Witness Stand (1987), The Psychology of Evidence and Trial Procedure (1985), The Child Witness (1991), and Rape: The Misunderstood Crime (1993). He has been doing research on legal processes for almost 20 years and is director of the Kansas Jury Project. He has testified as an expert witness on the issue of accuracy of eyewitness identification, and he has assisted defense attorneys in jury selection in various types of trials ranging from criminal murder cases to civil malpractice suits. At the 1989 convention of the American Psychological Association he gave the first G. Stanley Hall Lecture devoted to the topic of psychology and the law. He is a former President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology.

    Saul M. Kassin (Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 1978) is Professor of Psychology at Williams College, Williamstown, MA. He was an NIMH Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Psychology and Law Program at Stanford University (1985-1986) and was awarded a U.S. Supreme Court Judicial Fellowship (1984-1985), serving as a research associate at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, DC. He is the author or editor of six other books, including The Psychology of Evidence and Trial Procedure (1985), On the Witness Stand (1987), In the Jury Box (1987), and The American Jury on Trial (1988). His numerous articles and book chapters deal with the topics of evidence, trial procedure, and jury decision making. He has worked with lawyers as a trial consultant and has testified as an expert on eyewitness testimony and coerced confessions.

    Sara L. Bloom (J.D., University of Kansas, 1992) is an associate with a law firm in the Baltimore, MD, area, with emphasis on litigation. She received her bachelor of arts degree as well as her law degree at the University of Kansas. Previously she was employed in the prosecutor's office in Miami/Dade County, FL.

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