Coerced confessions: Is videotaping part of the problem, or part of the solution?

College student Bradley Page dropped his girlfriend off in a park one evening, only to learn later that she had been murdered and buried in a shallow grave. Police investigating the death interviewed him about the incident, repeatedly asking him why he could have left her alone in that park. "It was the biggest mistake of my life," he responded in anguish. Eventually, the officers told him that witnesses had seen him near where the body was buried and that his fingerprints had been found on the murder weapon. These statements astonished Page, who hadn't even remembered leaving his apartment. There was good reason for his astonishment: both statements were lies.

Page, still credulous, asked the officers if it was possible for him to forget these details, to "blank it out." They told him such occurrences were common, and it might help to assuage his guilt if he told them how he might have killed his girlfriend. He obliged them, giving a hypothetical description of how he would have committed the crime. Two hours later, the police told him that they considered his statement to be a confession. Page, thoroughly surprised by this turn, immediately retracted the confession.

The confession was, however, admitted into court, and ultimately led to Page's conviction for manslaughter. Page's confession was recorded on audiotape and a complete transcript of the interrogation was made, but cases like this one have led to calls for videotaping of all police interrogations, so that juries can judge for themselves whether a confession is coerced. Videotaping has already been adopted in some U.S. states. But the research of G. Daniel Lassiter and his colleagues has suggested that even videotaped confessions can bias the jury: study participants who viewed reenactments of confessions from a face-on perspective were more likely to view the confession as legitimate than those who watched a side view.

Defenders of videotaping argue that study participants weren't analyzing the videotape as carefully as real jurors because they knew they wouldn't be held accountable for their responses. So Lassiter's team designed a new study to see if participant accountability would change the results. They created a videotaped reconstruction of the Page confession based on the original transcripts and filmed from two different angles. The first camera was placed behind the interrogator, pointed directly at the defendant's face, and only the back of the interrogator was in view. The second camera recorded a wide side view, so that both questioner and detainee were seen in profile.

Half of the participants (the "high accountability" group) were told they would be meeting with a local judge, who would ask them to justify their decision. They would be paid for their time, and researchers even scheduled an appointment time for the meeting. The low accountability participants were simply told that all their responses would be kept confidential. Both groups then watched a three-minute video of a judge's instructions about how to determine whether a confession is coerced. The high accountability group was told they would be meeting with this same judge to discuss their conclusions, while the low-accountability group simply watched the videotape.

Half of each group watched the side-view video, and half watched the head-on video, then each participant answered three separate questions about the degree to which the confession was coerced, rating the degree of coercion on a scale of 1 to 9. Here are the results:


From this graph, you can see that both groups rated both videos as showing moderate evidence of coercion. For both groups, watching the face-on view resulted in judging the confession to be significantly more voluntary. It appears that the high-accountability group had a smaller difference between the face-on and side-view ratings, but this difference was not significant. However, when participants were asked to make a yes or no judgment as to whether the confession was coerced, the results become even clearer:


Now, the difference between the face-on and side-view is even more dramatic, and any difference between the high-accountability and low-accountability groups has disappeared. Both groups are significantly more likely to indicate that the face-on view of the confession is voluntary, and less likely to indicate that the side view is. Indeed, less than half of all participants who saw the side-view version of the confession believed that it was voluntary, and so based on this evidence, a real jury might have voted to acquit Page.

Lassiter et al. argue that this is compelling evidence that a side-view is a fairer way to depict interrogations, since it allows jurors to see not only the suspect's reactions, but also the questioner's behavior which may have coerced a response. Even when participants believe that they will be accountable to a judge, the camera angle still has a very large impact on their judgement of a confession videotape. But is a side view the best way to videotape interrogations? We'll report on a follow-up study that addresses this question tomorrow.

Lassiter, G.D., Munhall, P.J., Geers, A.L., Weiland, P.E., & Handley, I.M. (2001). Accountability and the camera perspective bias in videotaped confessions. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 53-70.

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Wow! I bet the guys on "20/20", "Dateline", "60 minutes" etc. know some secrets, as well. The official scenography and camera crew of the White House (old Fox News pros), also must know something about camera angles and additional factors that make a person more or less believable.

The first thing I thought of when I read this article was the old Batman TV series. Whenever you were in the bad guy's lair, all the cameras were tilted. So, if the image on the screen was a little crooked, you knew the person being depicted was "bad."

I think this was all done a little tongue-in-cheek, as if the producers were "winking" at viewers, who knew perfectly well that camera angles can affect how we view a person.

I don't think the "confession" videos are done with an eye to distort, however -- I think logically most people assume that the relevant information will come from the suspect. Tomorrow's article will shed additional light on this.

So I'm thinking.... I should never, under any circumstances, cooperate with the police until/unless I have an attorney.

On that note, I think that maybe Law & Order has taught me a little too much about our criminal justice system. :)