Exhaustion, confessions and wrongful convictions: A study

A new study finds that sleep deprived suspects are far more likely to agree to a false confession than their well slept peers.

Exhaustion impacts behavior. It can contribute to small mistakes, like missing an alarm clock, or large mistakes, like a car accident. A new study has resulted in data that supports an even more concerning consequence: imprisonment.

How can exhaustion lead to imprisonment?

A recent study provides direct evidence that a lack of sleep increases the risks of false confessions. False confessions are known to lead to convictions. As a result, the use of sleep deprivation while interviewing suspects could lead to a wrongful conviction. This study is bringing the interrogation methods used by enforcement officers into question.

What do we know about this study?

The study was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Researchers with the study note that approximately 15 to 25 percent of wrongful convictions are connected to false confessions.

Participants with the study were assigned computer tasks and repeatedly warned that pressing the "Escape" key would result in the loss of data. For the final session, one group of participants slept while the other did not. The next morning, participants were given a statement to sign. The statement was a confession to hitting the "Escape" key during the work on the assigned computer task. The odds of signing the statement were 4.5 times higher for those who did not sleep compared to those who did. Researchers with the study note that it has "important implications and highlight[s] the need for further research on factors affecting true and false confessions."

Can wrongful convictions be "fixed"?

A report by the National Geographic discussed false confessions, wrongful convictions and the process to remove these convictions — a process known in the legal world as exoneration. The piece notes 95 percent of all felonies like drug possession, burglary, car theft and tax fraud crimes, are settled with plea bargains that use no formal evidence. Determining the number of these individuals who were victims of sleep deprivation and provided false confessions is much more difficult than those who are serving on death row. Death row crimes are generally under intense scrutiny. In contrast, cases involving individuals serving terms in prison do not receive such thorough review, reducing their chances of exoneration. This theory is supported by data. Of the 117 exonerated individuals from 1973 to 2004, 107 were on death row. Only 10 received exoneration after their sentences were reduced to a life term in prison.

As a result, those who are facing criminal charges or who believe they were wrongly convicted are wise to seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. This legal professional will review the details of your case and work to build a defense to better ensure that your legal rights are protected.