What can influence a jury’s perception of a forced confession?

by | Apr 22, 2021 | Police Stops, Violent Offences |

A jury is meant to remain impartial and objectively evaluate the evidence presented in a case in accordance with the law. When a defendant confesses to a crime, this can be extremely persuasive – and often damning – evidence in a case, which often leads to a conviction. But what if the defendant was forced into lying about their involvement in a crime?

False confessions happen in criminal cases more often than you may expect. And certain conditions may make it difficult for a jury to recognize that a confession was forced. One reason for this is a phenomenon known as camera perspective bias.

How does angle affect perception?

Perspective has a direct influence on human perception. If we witness two people arguing – one head-on and the other from behind – we naturally have a skewed impression of the interaction based on the person whose facial expressions and body language we can see, as well as the one whose physical cues are obstructed from view. We may be more inclined to sympathise with one person over the other based on what we can and can’t see.

Implications on police videos

The same basic concept holds true in the case of police interrogations. Such encounters are usually videotaped, and this evidence can be used in court. However, a recent study demonstrates how the angle at which the camera is positioned can have a striking impact on jury perception.

Study participants were shown different interrogation videos in which a police officer coerced a suspect into giving a false confession. In some videos, the camera was set up to the side of both the officer and the suspect – with the full profiles of both people visible in the frame. In other videos, the camera was directly facing the suspect, and only the back of the officer’s head was visible.

The study found a strong link between camera angle and participants’ recognition of coercion from the officer. In cases where the face and body of the officer was obstructed from view, participants were more likely to interpret the suspect’s confession as genuine – even if there were audio indications that the officer was forcing or threatening the suspect. However, in cases where participants could see both the officer’s and suspect’s facial expressions and body language, participants were more likely to recognize confessions as involuntary.

These findings may seem startling, but real-life scenarios support this trend. When the non-profit legal organization the Innocence Project worked to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals through DNA evidence, it found that 25% of cases involved defendants who had been forced into making self-incriminating statements or confessions that were false.

The court seeks to create a level playing field and present facts in an equal and unbiased manner. However, sometimes our biases occur on a subconscious level. A good defence lawyer will know how to recognize such reflexive biases and use them to the defendant’s advantage in building an effective defence.