Chair of Justice and Law Studies Alan Hirsch leads a double life. One is that of the typical professor at the College: grading papers, lecturing and steadfastly challenging his students to adopt a legal perspective. The other is unknown to many of his students; Hirsch is an expert on false confessions, as he chronicles on his website, found at truthaboutfalseconfessions.com.
Hirsch’s website seeks to inform the general public about a serious problem in the criminal justice system as well as break down the misconceptions surrounding false confessions. The biggest misconsception is that people assume that “no one would confess to a crime he didn’t commit, except maybe someone deranged or subject to extreme compulsion such as torture,” according to the website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page.
Hirsch argues that a false confession can result from a number of situations. For example, a suspect might black out and become convinced that he or she really did commit the crime. However, Hirsch says that most false confessions result from psychological manipulation at the hands of interrogators.
“The principal technique combines two steps. Interrogators express certainty of the suspect’s guilt and aggressively thwart his denials, as well as confront him with evidence, sometimes exaggerated or fabricated, that allegedly establishes guilt. Then they introduce themes … that minimize the severity of the crime or the suspect’s culpability,” Hirsch said. “They are simultaneously communicating to the suspect the futility of maintaining innocence and implying that confessing will avert serious punishment … The problem with this interrogation technique is that it’s too effective – it breaks down the innocent as well as the guilty.”
Combatting this dangerous phenomenon is not always easy, but it is possible during trial with the help of expert witnesses, like Hirsch, educating the jury on what to look for in a confession. Hirsch is optimistic about jurors’ willingness to accept the possibility of a false confession yielded by interrogation tactics. “Jurors are regular people drawn from the community. They are becoming increasingly aware of false confessions because people in general are,” he said.
Media plays an important role as well. Over the last few years, true crime has become an increasingly popular genre. Programs such as Serial on NPR and Making a Murderer on Netflix have gained a huge following and expose crucial issues that our criminal justice system faces, including the advantages prosecutors have over defendants.
Hirsch is confident that his work will have a long-term effect on how jurors see defendants and witnesses. “In general, the more people learn about the justice system, the better,” Hirsch said. “I think that’s particularly true when it comes to things that are counter-intuitive – such as the unreliability of confessions and eyewitness testimony. We really can’t believe our ears and eyes, at least not unthinkingly.”
Hirsch’s website tells anecdotes of people across the country who have fallen victim to interrogation tactics and illuminates some harrowing statistics about the incarceration of innocent people. In a post from June of last year, Hirsch reported that “Of the Innocence Project’s 341 DNA exonerations, more than 25 percent gave full false confessions or incriminating statements.”
Hirsch has testified as an expert witness on false confessions 25 times, yet some particularly heartbreaking cases stick out to him. “A few stand out because they’re painful – cases where I failed to prevent the conviction of someone I’m convinced was innocent,” Hirsch said. “I have a case now involving a man who spent 38 years incarcerated before his innocence was established. He had signed a confession that was typed by a police officer and shoved in front of him. At trial, the officer testified that the man read the confession to himself before signing, but the man was illiterate.”
There is some light at the end of the tunnel for victims of this kind of manipulation. Hirsch’s website proposes a few specific policy reforms in detail that would curtail the interrogator’s ability to produce false confessions. Among other propositions, he advocates for the videotaping of interrogations as well as the ability for prosecutorial recusal when attorneys refuse to acknowledge concrete proof of innocence. Despite the unavoidable tragedy that surrounds his work, Hirsch plans on continuing his pursuit in doing whatever he can to minimize the detrimental impact of false confessions on convictions.
“I’ve been giving thought to a book that would combine engaging stories about my involvement as an expert in the criminal justice system and some sober discussion about ways to reform the system,” he said. “I also plan to continue my work as a trial consultant and expert witness, which is fulfilling and plays a small role in ameliorating a large problem.”