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Occasionally a Confession is obtained in a criminal investigation using improper methods -- violence, extortion, duress, etc. There are safeguards in s.76 of Pace to prevent such confessions being admitted in evidence (see improperly obtained confession). This article, however, discusses false confessions that are not obtained by such means, and which are not protected by the same safeguards.
False confessions made freely by the accused
It is quite unusual for a person to confess to a crime he or she did not commit. When this happens, it is usually the case that the accused is suffering from a severe personality disorder. For example, Judith Ward served 18 years in prison for an IRA bombing that we now know she could not have commited (see guildford 4justice nil for a discussion of this, and other notorious false confessions). However, sometimes people confess to crimes they did not commit for understandable, even creditable reasons: the protect somebody else, to get home to the children, or just to get the interview over. It is not entirely unheard of for the police to take advantage of a suspect's vulnerability to encourage a confession; such behaviour is improper, if not actually opressive (see improperly obtained confession). However, it has to be accepted that people do confess to crimes they did not commit, even without improper behaviour on the part of the police.
More common, however, is the situation where a person overstates his involvement in a crime. Confessions of this sort are rarely made directly to the police. More often they are made in unguarded moments between acquaintances. The motives for making such statements are varied -- among young men the most common is probably a misplaced desire to impress ones peers. However, a confession made by the accused to a fried in the pub is as admissible as one made to the investigating officer in a police station.
It is very difficult to known how to prevent such false confessions finding their way into the ears of the jury. On the one hand, it could be argued that a person who brags of committing a crime to impress his drinking partners, and is convicted, has got what was coming to him. It is harder to justify locking up a disturbed and highly suggestible innocent person for nearly twenty years.
False confessions fabricated by prosectutors
It is quite rare, it is believed, that the police resort to outright oppression to elicit a confession. Why should they, when it is far easier simply to make one up? It is clear that the police sometimes do this for what might be considered honourable motives. After all, it is sometimes the case that the police have incontrovertible evidence against the accused, which they know perfectly well would not be sufficient to secure a conviction. If, for example, a police officer saw the accused commit a crime, with his own eyes and at close quarters, but knows that his own record is such as to cast doubt on his evidence, it must be very tempting to fabricate a confession to ensure the conviction of an obviously guilty person.
This, of course, is not a problem limited to confession evidence. Most kinds of evidence can be fabricated, and it is the job of the defence counsel to raise a robust challenge to prosecution evidence.
Allegations of fabricated confessions have decreased dramatically since the introduction of the compulsory tape recording provisions under PACE Code C. These provisions apply to all formal interviews, except for summmary-only charges. They do not apply to informal interviews, although with the ready availability of pocket-sized recording devices it can certainly be argued that they should.
Mistaken or misunderstood confessions
It is possible for a person to mis-hear or misunderstand a confession. It is, again, the job of the defence counsel to challenge evidence of this sort in cross-examination; the problem of mistaken evidence is not in any way unique to confessions.