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Martin Takliff grew up affluent and comfortable with his mom and dad in their home in Long Island. In 1988, Marty called 911 to report that his parents had been stabbed. Paramedics rushed the adults to the hospital, and police took their 17-year-old into the station for questioning about what had gone down. Little did Marty know that he was the primary suspect for the crime, and the police pursued a ruthless interrogation to get Marty to confess. Marty steadfastly maintained his innocence over hours of questions, but the police caught a break.

While the police were questioning the young man, his father died in the hospital, and the police decided to use this tragedy as a tactic. The officers told Marty that his father had come out of his coma and told the doctors that Marty was the one who stabbed him and killed his mother. Marty, a generally good kid with a solid relationship with his parents, figured that his father wouldn’t lie about what happened. He told the police that his father must have told the truth and he must have done it, even though that’s not how he remembered it going down. He was taken to trial, where his verbal confession was used as evidence to convict him of double homicide, and he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.  

In the early 2000s, the case was reopened when Marty alleged that the confession was coerced and he did not, in fact, commit the crime he confessed to. DNA testing exonerated him in 2007, but the public was now curious about a number of aspects of the case. Were the police really allowed to lie like that to a kid? And if he didn’t commit the crime, why did he voluntarily confess?

Over and over again, the courts have defended the right of police officers and detectives to lie to suspects in an attempt to extract the truth. As such, authorities have outright lied about lab results, doctored videos, and fed false information to suspects steadily until they draw out the confessions. While many average citizens want the police to use whatever tactics necessary to apprehend the assailant and put bad guys away, governments and law enforcers should be limited to ethical and sound practices.

Psychological studies have demonstrated that the human imagination is fantastic at helping us come up with inaccurate or totally false memories. You may have experienced this first hand with a dream that you mistook for a memory. Police and detectives are known to exploit this bug in our brain’s wiring by repeating how they think a crime went down over and over and leaving the suspect to dwell on the police’s version of the story until the brain reclassifies the imagined version as a memory. Our brains are also wired to put an inordinate amount of trust on our sense of sight, so doctored pictures and videos are known to produce false confessions.

Even if they believe their innocence, high-stress situations are known to inhibit people’s long-term planning abilities. Police and detectives create hostile environments that suspects just want to end. When the interrogation has worn them down, suspects put a premium on ending the hostility and don’t think about the long-term implications of confessing to a crime they maintain they didn’t do — they just want the yelling to end. Shankar Vedantam documented this myopia in his podcast Hidden Brain, specifically with people who are experiencing a shortage of something like money, time, or peace of mind.

Accused persons, despite their guilt or innocence, should never be coerced into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit. Authorities backed by the power of the State have been known to prey on neurology and psychology to forward their own agenda, not necessarily to find the truth. We have to do more to hold authorities accountable for their actions so innocent people aren’t sent to prison on a psychological fluke.