Analysis: as The Nobody Zone podcast shows, crime confessions are compelling, regardless of guilt or innocence

In 1970s Ireland, the justice system was brought to its knees by a group of gardaí who browbeat and assaulted suspects to extract confessions. So nefarious were their activities that they garnered the sobriquet the "Heavy Gang". In the United States, The Innocence Project documented 365 DNA exonerations in the US, as of September 2019. While the persons belonging to each case were innocent, a staggering 25% had admitted guilt, and 11% had even pled guilty. While one can understand a confession holding weight before the advent of DNA in the 1980's, surely justice systems have progressed since? 

The Nobody Zone is a podcast which hinges on the confession tape of Irish serial killer Kieran Patrick Kelly. But regardless of guilt or innocence, what is it about confessions that people find so compelling? 

Professor Gisli Gudjonsson is an Emeritus Professor of Forensic Psychology at King's College London. He has consulted on many cases, including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, and is an expert on false confession (he literally wrote the book on the subject matter, The Psychology of False Confessions).

Episode 1 of RTÉ's The Nobody Zone podcast: "It Plays On Your Mind"

Gudjonsson explains there are three primary forms of false confessions. The first is a voluntary false confession which occurs when a subject confesses without interference from law enforcement. A famous example being Henry Lee Lucas, the subject of Netflix's The Confession Killer

"I testified in his case in Texas. He told me he had confessed to over 3000 murderers. The police had him for about 600 murders. He had a number of problems. Like, he was extremely attention-seeking. He was good at confabulation, so making up stories and helping the police".

A coerced, or compliant confession is second on the list. Gudjonsson explains this is when a subject cannot cope with the stress of a police interview and crumbles. The third type of false confession occurs when police persuade the accused that they are guilty. 

Episode 1 of RTÉ's The Nobody Zone podcast: "A Hidden Truth?"

Vulnerability appears to be a buzz word when speaking of confessions. It can relate to a personality trait such as suggestibility or, as Professor Ciara Staunton at UCC explains, a disability. "They might think that they're helpful, they may think they want a certain amount of notoriety, but that's all fuelled by an intellectual disability or a learning disability of some kind. And in essence, they are vulnerable, and then they are extremely vulnerable to police questioning and so on and so forth". 

In the United States, "people can lie to you and say there's evidence" says Professor Ross Macmillan, Chair in Sociology, at the University of Limerick. "If law enforcement thinks that they have the right person, they're quite comfortable about releasing little bits of information about the crime, getting the person to agree to the details of it, and then you know after two or three hours no one remembers where that came from. I'm 100% comfortable saying 99 out of 100 of these cases the person just wants the situation to end, they're looking for an escape hatch".

Episode 3 of RTÉ's The Nobody Zone podcast: "The Numbers Game"

It is prudent to remark that the Irish system functions very differently to its US counterpart. "If a guard departs from safeguards for example by denying access to legal representation or by denying access to food, or depriving them of sleep. Then any admissions made in those circumstances won't be admitted into evidence at trial" says Professor Ivana Bacik, associate professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin.

She explains that gender on occasion can increase a subject's vulnerability. "Criminal psychologist Dr Paul O'Mahony wrote a very powerful account of the way in which confessions were forced from Joanne Hayes in the Kerry Babies case". 

In 1984, the body of a newborn was discovered on a beach in Co. Kerry. The baby boy had been stabbed to death. A local woman Joanne Hayes had just given birth to a baby, her child died shortly after, and was buried on her family's property in Abbeydorney. However, Garda coerced Hayes and her family into confessing to the murder of the child on the beach. The family later recanted their confession, medical evidence corroborated their statements and the charges against her were dropped.

Episode 1 of RTÉ's The Nobody Zone podcast: "True Confessions"

In Irish law, different models inform the interview process, explains Professor Staunton. The motivational model is "based on our memory, how our mind works, how our memory works, our ability to observe and perceive information". Cognitive restructuring falls under this model: "a simple example would be, so you ask somebody 'tell me what happened' - that's called free recall, you're just asking somebody in their own words, with no interruption what they remember. Then you might go back a little time later, or the next day and say right we're going to go through this again, but this time I want you to tell me what happened in reverse order, so let's go backwards".

Although it can be difficult to secure accurate information Dr Tim Trimble, Lecturer in Applied Psychology and Junior Dean of Trinity College Dublin, stresses the importance of "reality monitoring". "The vividness and clarity of a statement that somebody is making. Is it clear, sharp? We think memory can be tied with things like affect and subjective mental state, or even things olfactory memories, smells, even tastes, visual details that an interviewee saw - the reality of it. So things like that are fairly good at giving us more accurate information" he says.

If you've got someone who is purportedly involved in violent, vicious premeditated crime, why would you expect them to tell the truth?

A false confession or any confession may rest on the accused's specific "vulnerabilities". However, what about minds so polluted by evil they are void of emotional or cognitive frailty? 

"You're looking into somebody who's possibly got psychopathic tendencies and is well able to maintain their composure", says Staunton. "These are more of the predator style of killers. The way the police interview these guys is very different again. You almost have to play up to them, admire them, almost respect them. Because they will run rings around you intellectually, you're talking about a whole different person in that regard, they won't crumble, and they won't confess, unless they feel they know the evidence. They know they are going to be convicted, and so they will enjoy the process".

People are still being convicted for crimes they did not commit, crimes which could lead to a lifetime of incarceration or in some instances, death. In the words of  Professor Macmillan, "if you've got someone who is purportedly involved in violent, vicious premeditated crime, why would you expect them to tell the truth?"

The Nobody Zone is a six-part podcast series, by RTÉ's Documentary On One, in association with Third Ear Productions. New episodes are published every Tuesday morning

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ