Cognitive Daily

What’s the best way to ensure that law enforcement officers don’t abuse their authority and coerce innocent suspects into confessing? Yesterday we discussed research suggesting that a side-view videotape of a confession was more likely than a head-on view to result in an accurate assessment of whether that confession was voluntary or coerced.

But the Lassiter team’s study was still open to some key criticisms. First, the study participants were all college students — certainly not a typical jury demographic. Second, jurors don’t see videotaped confessions in isolation — when a confession is disputed, the prosecution and defense both offer additional arguments. Finally, the study only considered two video angles. Perhaps a different angle can produce even better results.

The team doesn’t dispute these concerns, but instead points out that less-expensive studies using college student participants can be conducted to see if a line of research is valid. If those results are promising, then they can move on to more realistic scenarios.

That’s exactly what they did in this case, following up their initial study of a 30-minute confession video with a three-hour simulation of a full trial, with a real judge presiding and lawyers presenting arguments based on the actual transcript of the Brad Page case. Local actors were hired for other roles, and entire production was videotaped by the telecommunications department of Ohio University, at a total cost of about $10,000.

In their first courtroom simulation study, they varied the camera angle for the confession as they had done in the earlier, confession-only study, showing some participants the side-view confession and some the head-on view. They also varied the judge’s instructions to the jury on how to assess the confession video. Some participants saw the instructions before watching the confession video, and some saw them after watching the video. Some participants were instructed to pay particular attention to reliability and fairness, and some were also warned that different camera positions might bias their results.

The courtroom simulation provided additional evidence that cast Page’s confession in doubt. The details that Page provided in his confession did not match up with details of the actual crime scene in a number of ways: he claimed to drag the body 100 yards to the burial site, but no evidence of dragging were found at the crime scene; the hubcap he said he used as a makeshift shovel bore no evidence of soil at the crime scene or the victim’s clothing fibers. Most outside observers, presented with this evidence, believed that Page was unjustly convicted. But would the format of the video confession help or hinder a more accurate outcome? And what other factors were at play?

Seventy-three paid participants were recruited from Ohio communities to view the trial video. In addition, 132 Ohio University undergraduates also participated. All participants then gave separate guilty/not guilty votes. 31 percent of all participants voted “guilty” when seeing the head-on view of the confession, significantly more than the 15 percent who voted “guilty” in the side-view condition. The judicial instructions, by contrast, did not produce significant differences. Finally, an analysis of the student and community-member juries revealed no significant differences in their verdicts, thus offering additional validation of the confession-only study we discussed yesterday.

In the second study, 42 adult community members were recruited to watch the the full trial video, with one critical difference: half the participants watched the side-view confession, as before, but the other half watched a version of the confession that showed the questioner’s face but only the back of the suspect’s head. While Lassiter et al. acknowledge that this approach might seem “cockeyed,” they argue that the key for determining if a confession is coerced is to see the interrogation from the suspect’s perspective. Then they can watch the behavior of the questioner and decide whether undue coercion is occurring.

In this version of the experiment, jurors were allowed to deliberate for up to 45 minutes before making their decisions, which again, were rendered as individual votes. Now 40 percent of participants who saw the side-view confession voted “guilty,” and just 5 percent voted “guilty” when viewing the confession from the suspect’s perspective.

So does this mean that a defendant’s-perspective video is ideal? Clearly, in cases where the defendant is innocent, this approach is most likely to lead to acquittal, but what about when the defendant really is guilty and no coercion occurred? Would a jury be more likely to acquit such an individual? Lassiter’s team argues that side-view videotaping might be the best compromise, since it has shown similar rates of conviction to audiotape/transcripts of confessions.

Lassiter, G.D., Geers, A.L., Handley, I.M., Weiland, P.F., & Munhall, P.J. (2002). Videotaped interrogations and confessions: A simple change in camera perspective alters verdicts in simulated trials. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(5), 867-874.