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Criminal Either Way: How False Confessions Impact Perceptions of Exonerees

When thinking about exoneration – release from prison after a wrongful conviction is overturned – one might envision a rejoiceful scene of a family being reunited once again, with hugs, and kisses, and the ability to return to life before conviction. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many exonerees. There are many challenges an exoneree may face post-exoneration, like finding housing and employment, expunging their (false) criminal records, or rebuilding personal relationships. Additionally, because of the assumption that an exoneree should be able to leave prison and resume the life they had before, they are also not eligible for the same post-release assistance services that parolees are offered.

False confessions and false guilty pleas are reasonably common among wrongful convictions. A defendant may falsely confess or plead guilty to a crime they did not commit for many reasons – they may feel pressure from the police or their lawyer to do so, or otherwise are persuaded to with the promise of a discounted sentence. The question remains, do we treat exonerees who falsely confessed or plead guilty differently than we do those who were convicted through other means?

In “False admissions of guilt associated with wrongful convictions undermine people’s perceptions of exonerees”, Scherr and colleagues (2020) sought to investigate the extent of negative perceptions people may have towards exonerees who falsely pleaded guilty to a wrongful crime they were being convicted with. In their study, participants were provided with a news story about a fictional man named Daniel Cooper, who had been recently exonerated from a murder charge by DNA evidence, and read that Daniel Cooper had either (1) falsely confessed (2) plead guilty (3) both confessed and plead guilty or (4) neither confessed nor plead guilty. Participants were then asked to give their perceptions of Daniel Cooper’s intelligence, mental health, responsibility, culpability, and the reintegration support they would recommend.

Furthermore, the results showed both false admission and confession were perceived very similarly, in the sense that exonerees who gave a false confession and/or admission were less deserving of reintegration aid, and were stigmatized. The results also showed that the participants perceived exonerees to be less intelligent, which by the design of the study, was associated with the idea of Daniel Cooper dealing with a mental issue(s). Lastly, the results also showed that despite the DNA evidence proving Daniel Cooper’s innocence, and the belief of Daniel Cooper suffering from a mental issue(s), participants believed that Daniel Cooper was responsible for his false conviction. Therefore, Daniel Cooper was not completely innocent, nor exempt from any consequences derived from his false admission and/or confession.

All in all, it is devastating to witness such injustice towards innocent lives who’ve already faced an unjust punishment. This is why it is strongly encouraged within the study to have policy reform to aid exonerees, and their reintegration into freedom. Nonetheless, change must also begin by properly informing those of what exoneration means, in attempt to dissolve the stigma-by-association many exonerees encounter.

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