Crime: Why Do Innocent People Confess?

Megan Charles - Author

Jun. 16 2013, Updated 10:25 p.m. ET

Japan has an impressive conviction rate of nearly 99 percent with a crime rate of 9.9 percent, one of the lowest in the world. The US, in comparison, according to the US Attorneys’ Annual Statistical Report, indicates we have a conviction rate of 93 percent with a much higher annual rate of crime. However, there has been recent outcry in Japan over the number of wrongful arrests that contribute to such a high conviction rate. The puzzling thing is the number of innocent people who are arrested who confess to the crime they are being accused of.

The US is not immune from wrongful convictions. Studies estimate that the wrongful conviction rate in the US is between 5,000 and 10,000 people per year.

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The laws and rights of the citizen vary per country. According to the BBC News, under Japanese law, a suspect may be held without bail for up to 48 hours. During that time, the police are required to inform you of the crime you are suspected of, the right to remain silent, and the rights to council. However, the police will begin interrogating before a lawyer can be seen. Whereas here in the states, we’re privileged to the protection our Miranda Rights provide, and we are protected from threats and coercion, especially while in the custody of officials.

While the Japanese police and prosecutors are not widely accused of resorting to more aggressive forms of interrogation such as torture, no one outside the interview room can really say for sure that it doesn’t happen. Interviews take place behind closed doors without an attorney present.

Amid interrogation in Japan, a suspect can endure coercion, assault, shame, death threats, falsified statements, offers of lighter sentences upon admission, and inhumane treatment such as keeping them awake or forcing them to sit or stand for prolonged periods of time. Therefore, suspects admit to the crimes in hopes of protecting themselves from continued harassment and abuse.

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In one case, a man named Shoji Sakurai was sentenced to 29 years in jail for a robbery-murder that he didn’t commit. He spent another 15 years trying to win a non-guilty verdict at his retrial. He had been questioned for many days straight and eventually buckled under the pressure of exhaustion and harassment. Even if those who have been wrongly convicted managed to prove their innocence, receiving an official apology is nearly impossible.

Unlike in a British or American court, where it is only necessary to prove the facts, Japanese courts attach great importance to motive. Judges demand to know why someone committed the crime ahead of any other aspect of the case. If police are unable to provide this, they’ve failed to do their jobs. Hence, they are pressured to obtain a confession.

Yoshiki Kobayashi, who worked as a detective for the National Police Agency for 25 years, thinks the emphasis on confessions is also due to limited investigative powers that they have.

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“The police in other countries can have plea bargaining, undercover operations and wire-tapping, so they rely on these techniques. In Japan, we are not allowed these powers so all we can do is to rely on confessions. In the US or other countries, they regard investigation as a game but in our culture we also want to find out the truth – exactly what happened through confessions.”

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