False confession expert gives lecture at Kenai Courthouse

Coerced affirmation

The request was routine for Professor Alan Hirsch. The attorney traveled to the small hamlet of Kenai to offer expert testimony for a suppression hearing.


Hirsch said he exited his plane after a long flight, jetlagged and exhausted. Local defense attorney Ben Adams greeted him. Adams informed the expert consultant his services were no longer needed. The case was settled a day prior.

The trip wasn't wasted. An impromptu presentation was arranged at the Kenai Courthouse.

Hirsch, an interrogation and false confession expert, spoke Wednesday at the courthouse. Police officers, attorneys and judges attended a lecture that focused on the prevalence of false confessions and the need to raise awareness about the issue.

"The tragedy is false confessions can only be meaningfully reduced if we stop it at the source," he said. "We must prevent the false confession from ever occurring."

False confessions and incriminating statements lead to wrongful convictions in approximately 25 percent of cases, according to the Innocence Project, an international nonprofit.

Hirsch noted the widespread use of the Reid technique, a method of questioning subjects and assessing their credibility. If evidence suggests the subject committed the crime in question, then nine steps of interrogation are used to persuade the person to tell the truth.

The steps include direct confrontation, discouragement of denying guilt and offering alternatives, among others.

Hirsch said the technique is too effective and causes false confessions. He reduced the entire process to three components: isolation, confrontation and minimization.

First, the subject is isolated to create an anxious, secluded feeling. Second, the person is confronted and made to feel they're doomed. Lastly, the interrogators downplay the severity of offering a confession, he said.

"The technique is too effective," he said. "Subjects break down, the guilty as well as the innocent."

Hirsch is a visiting professor in the legal studies program at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. For the past five years, he's focused his attention on false confessions, assisting attorneys as a retained expert consultant in more than 60 cases across the East Coast.

He is also the author of six books, a dozen scholarly articles and more than 20 opinion editorials and magazine articles about the legal system, appearing in "The Los Angeles Times," "Washington Post" and "Newsday."

Hirsch continued his lecture discussing the Reid technique's manual.

The first half of the manual details the pre-interrogation interview. It's a less formal, non-adversarial process meant to identify the guilty and weed out the innocent. During the interview, the integrator watches for body language and listens for verbal cues. The interrogators are trained to pick up on these cues.

"Study after study debunks the idea -- trained interrogators very much included -- that the interview can reliably assess truthfulness by observing body language," he said. "Put simply, human beings are poor lie detectors."

The screening process is ineffective while the interrogation process is too effective, he said.

The Public Defender Agency in Kenai doesn't deal with many cases involving false confession, but when they occur having an expert is a no-brainer, Adams said.

"It's so counterintuitive," he said. "The confession is powerful evidence, and the average juror ... may struggle with the idea of false confessions, so to have someone explain that to the court is essential."

Current interrogation techniques are very intimidating, and false confessions do occur, albeit not that often, Adams said.

"I hope the professor's brought everybody's attention to the issue, and we all keep an eye out for it," he said.

The leading measure for protection against false confession is the full recording of interrogations. The attorney's fact finder, the judge and the jury can hear what interrogation methods were used and disputes over what transpired can be resolved, Hirsch said.

Central Peninsula law enforcement officials record interrogations once offenders are taken into custody.

"Everyone favors the use of recorders in interrogations, and that goes for law enforcement in a lot of jurisdictions," Hirsch said.

A lengthy Q-and-A followed Hirsch's lecture. Judge Charles Huguelet asked what was the recommended interrogation process.

The body of study regarding false confessions is still in its infancy, and professionals haven't created a better process, Hirsch admitted. Instead, interrogators should depend on gathered evidence and they should put less emphasis on initial interviews.

"There's usually evidence before law officials even start," Huguelet rebutted. "I don't know if anyone relies purely on body language or anything else when addressing dangers to our community."

Hirsch said he didn't mean to imply people are simply pulled off the street. Rather, it's easy to find oddities that aren't present.

For example, Hirsch said he recently worked on a murder case where two parents were slain and a suspect -- a natural suspect -- was the son.

"They decided he wasn't grieving properly," he said "and that's not that uncommon for law enforcement to determine that someone related to the victim is acting funny. And then the interrogation begins."

Overall, Hirsch said he hopes people realize it's a big problem, and reforming interrogation methods is key to finding a solution.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.


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