SRI LANKA: A False confession: Did it really happen?

By Sanjeewa Weerawickrama

Criminal offenses such as thefts, rapes, homicides, assaults and kidnappings should be investigated according to existing laws. A criminal investigation is team work where multiple entities are involved.

Analysis is necessary to establish that a crime was committed by a particular person or persons. Reliable and correct evidence should be gathered with the utmost care to make this undertaking a success. Otherwise, miscarriages of justice could result in fatal errors. An example would be: sending an innocent person to jail.

Interrogation is an extremely important tool that is used primarily with the goal of eliciting information. Usually a suspect is interrogated by a police officer or law enforcement authorities. An Interview is a process carried out with victims and witnesses. But there may be occasions where a suspect is also interviewed. An example would be: when additional information is needed about the crime that he had allegedly committed. So, we see that interrogation is more serious and it indirectly serves to extract a confession.

In the Sri Lanakan set-up, police officers perform interviews but only a Magistrate is only allowed to report on confessions under general law. The initial, most important evidence is restricted by the police in the Sri Lankan criminal investigation system. Police officers interview various people as alleged suspects in order to gather information related to crimes committed.

We now discuss the varying techniques that have been identified to extract information. It ranges from ordinary and interactive methods to outright torture. A confession that one would make should be voluntary in nature. It is a prerequisite in order to admit it as evidence of a true confession.In earlier times, the interrogating agency required simple application of pressure on the suspect to get a confession. This was accomplished by using food deprivation, beatings, assaults, emotional abuse, sleep deprivation, continuous physical trauma (such as immersion in water). Intimidation using his own statements where he is emotionally wounded or threatened was also in force. In extremis, the subject would tell the enforcement agencies what they wanted to hear, thinking that the abuse would then soon stop.

By 1930, it was recognized that most of the confessions were not voluntary. The Courts tended not to rely on them. [1]

Later, a more popular, humanistic approach was developed in the 1940’s by a Chicago policeman. It is known as the Reid Technique. “It relies on a careful building of rapport, tests for reliability on known answers to control questions, and observation of body language to identify anxiety, which Reid, felt was a signal of lying”.[2] the Reid Technique was extensively researched and showed that anxiety is a common and normal phenomenon that any human being can experience. The technique was discredited. It was seen as incompatible with modern science and psychology. A simple explanation was given. The state of anxiety is a normal reaction that any stressed person would show externally. Conversely, there are many liars who can lie with good eye contact without showing nervousness or anxiety.

As time passed, development was made in the areas of law, philosophy, medicine and community. Modern techniques were then recognized with some certain credibility.

It is also worthwhile to consider how, at the time of questioning, a Police officer can be doubtful that a suspect is telling the truth or not. A new interviewing technique gained acceptance as an effective way to discover the truth. “The PEACE (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate) Method is being used in the UK, Denmark, New Zealand and a few other places”. [2] It is a very straight-forward technique resembling a journalistic approach. The concept is: allow the suspect to talk on in his own way. If he fabricates a story with long, detailed explanations, he tends to make conflicting statements during the interrogation. This creates doubt about the narration. It signifies the possibility of a false confession.

There is also the Kinesic Interview Method, considered an alternative technique. In this method the deceptions occurring during the interview are analyzed. It is a non-verbal method that can be employed by the interviewer. [3]

False confession is a recognized entity of the criminal investigation system. False confession is a narrative admission (how it happened) of a crime that was committed by an INNOCENT person. It can be oral or in writing. [4] There are many underlying causes and risk factors involved in confessing falsely. The three types of false confessions can be described as follows. [5]

1. Voluntary False Confessions

The most important feature in this category is that there are no persuasive tactics used to make a person confess falsely. The suspect confesses voluntarily. Following is a list that gives a few reasons for confessing falsely. [5]

• to relieve feelings of guilt about a real or imagined transgression from the past;
• to occur most likely in people with depression (Gudjonsson, 1992; 2003);
• to pre-empt further investigation of a more serious offence (Shepherd, 1996);
• to protect a significant other;
• to gain notoriety – a pathological need to be famous and to enhance
one’s self-esteem (Huff, Rattner, & Sagarin, 1986);
• to identify those who are unable to distinguish fact from fantasy (people with
schizophrenia) (Gudjonsson, 1992; 2003);
• to recognize that the claimant sees no way of proving his/her innocence and confesses;
• to gain a reduced sentence;
• to hide other non-criminal facts (for example a love affair); 
• to take revenge on another (Gudjonsson, 2003).

2. Coerced-Compliant False Confessions

In this category COERCION is a key feature used by the interviewer. The suspect knows inside himself that he is innocent. To end the interrogation quickly, to go home quickly, to please the interviewer and to avoid being put in a police holding cell are some recognized points that are connected with this type of false confession. (Gudjonsson, 1992; 2003). Vulnerable people that have been identified in this regard are those with learning difficulties.

3. Coerced-Internalized False Confession

In these cases no external force is used. The suspect, pressed with internal conflicts, makes a false confession. There may be many reasons for such confessions. Memory Distrust Syndrome has been recognized as one possibility. In this instance, the alleged suspect overrides his/her own memory and tends to believe external sources such as the interviewer (Wolchover & Heaton-Armstrong, 1996). Trust of the interrogative authority is another explanation for making this kind of false confession. The suspect believes the interviewer more than his/her own memory or life experience. This type of false confession is said to be seen mostly in people with a lack of self-confidence.

The concept of the false confession exists in every country in the world. How common is it? The gravity of the problem is beyond the ability to research–as there are many limitations. [6] The only successful way to prove that a false confession had happened is with DNA evidence. During the past twenty years, hundreds of convicted prisoners have been exonerated based on DNA and non-DNA evidence surfacing. A leading cause of false confessions is evidenced that they are Police induced. [7]

Finally, in summation, false confession is an existing drawback that can occur during the criminal investigation process. It is most certainly not accepted by the Courts. But, without their full and complete knowledge, it can exist. It would be prudent to be aware of related facts in order to raise suspicion when necessary. The practical aspects of false confessions will be discussed in the next article.

2. Forensic outreach [Internet]. 2017 [cited 3 June 2017]. Available Here:
3. Orlando J. INTERROGATION TECHNIQUES. 2017. Available Here 
4. False Confessions (Forensic Psychology) iResearchNet [Internet]. 2017 [cited 3 June 2017]. Available Here:
5. Types of false confession. [Cited on 3June 2017] Click Here
6. Amelia Hritz, Michal Blau, and Sara Tomezsko. False Confessions [Internet]. 2017 [cited 3 June 2017]. Available Here
7. Richard A. Leo. False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online. Vol. 37, Issue 3. September 2009.