CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

CrimProf Richard Leo Writes Police Interrogation and American Justice

Richleo University of San Francisco Associate Professor Richard Leo's new book examines how American police have developed sophisticated interrogation methods that rely on persuasion, manipulation, and deception to elicit confessions from criminal suspects.

While the idea of a false confession may seem inconceivable, the phenomenon of individuals confessing to crimes they did not commit has become increasingly common in this era of DNA exonerations. But why would an innocent person confess guilt?

Police interrogation techniques often provide the answer, writes University of San Francisco School of Law Associate Professor Richard Leo in his new book, Police Interrogation and American Justice (Harvard University Press, 2008). Hidden from public view and rarely recorded, false confessions are often induced by psychological coercion -- promising the suspect more lenient sentencing, for example -- during an interrogation session characterized by isolation, accusation, confrontation, pressure, and flat-out lies.

"Police can tell a suspect that they have their DNA and fingerprints, even if in fact they have nothing," Leo said. One solution, Leo says, is to mandate the recording of all police interrogations.

Leo's book chronicles more than a century of police interrogation in the United States, from the use of physical torture to the rise psychological manipulation and the lie detector test.

At the turn of the century, police used the so-called third degree. "This is not fiction," Leo said. "The use of rubber hoses and worse on suspects were common methods used to elicit a confession." The use of physical force in police interrogations began to be outlawed by states in the 1930s, a move that would eventually give rise to psychological manipulation as an alternative method to draw out confessions.

Leo's book is based on more than a decade of research, including a significant amount of primary research. He has observed hundreds of police interrogation sessions, attended police interrogation courses and seminars, analyzed police department interrogation manuals, and interviewed dozens of police interrogators and criminal justice officials. [Mark Godsey]

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