Law and Conversation

July 10, 2010

False confessions and false perceptions

Today’s Chicago Tribune has an insightful article by Lisa Black and Steve Mills, “What causes people to give false confessions?”   Black and Mills describe Kevin Fox’s testimony on how law enforcement authorities elicited a false confession from him that he killed his small daughter, Riley, and quote others who wonder whether others held or convicted of similar crimes likewise gave false confessions.

The article reports that some critics believe that techniques of interrogating suspects are based on faulty assumptions of behavior.  “Investigators are taught how to base their questions and method of interrogation on a suspect’s verbal and non-verbal cues and mood.”  The authors quote Rob Warden of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions from  his “True Stories of False Confessions,” a book he edited with colleague Steven Drizin, as follows:  “Either you’re crying too much or you’re not crying enough. Both touch off suspicion. You can’t win either way.”

Warden’s quote reminded me of Joan Didion’s memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the horrendous year she spent in the wake of her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack while their only daughter, Quintana, was in a coma induced as part of treatment for a raging infection.  (Quintana died shortly after Didion completed her book.) 

As Robert Pinsky explains so well in his review in The New York Times, Didion describes what happened and how she felt, employing language that’s as accurate as she could possibly make it, but, at the same time, spare and devoid of gratuitous or showy adjectives.  Through its understatement, her narrative has a far greater impact on the reader than would one with more colorful language.  So even though her whole book is telling what happened, she’s really showing, following the writer’s maxim “Show, don’t tell” to great effect.

Didion begins the book by describing her husband’s death at home, in the middle of a conversation, her disbelief, and her trip to the hospital.  In shock, she remembers a hospital social worker telling a doctor in her presence that she’s “a pretty cool customer.”

Like the lawyers and psychologists working to exonerate those whom they believe have been coerced into providing false confessions, Didion criticizes those who assume that grief must necessarily be accompanied by certain manifestations and that, without those indicia, a survivor must not be too upset.  “Because the reality of death has not yet penetrated awareness, survivors can appear to be quite accepting of the loss.  Here, then, we had the ‘pretty cool customer’ effect.”

What’s your experience with reading people through their nonverbal actions and reactions?  Ever had your assumptions challenged?  Oscar Wilde said that only shallow people do NOT judge others by first impressions; have you ever thought you had someone figured out, only to discover that you’d got it wrong?

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