Preventing False Confessions

It is a fundamental tenet of both American and English law that reliance should only be placed on confession evidence that is given freely and voluntarily. In considering the voluntary nature of a confession, several factors need to be considered. These include the vulnerability of the accused (through factors such as age, mental illness and handicap, physical illness or injury, and intoxication), the conditions of detention (lack of access to legal advice, failure to be given legal rights, and adequate rest periods during detention), and the characteristics of the interrogation (threats, physical abuse, and inducements).

In America, the most important legal development designed to protect the rights of suspects and deter police misconduct relates to the case of Miranda v. Arizona, which was decided in 1966 (59). The effect of this judgment was to ensure that all criminal suspects in police custody must be warned against self-incrimination and made aware of their right to remain silent and to receive legal advice. These rights have to be actively waived by the accused before interrogation can commence, and any violations of the requirements render any subsequent confession inadmissible.

In the United Kingdom, statutory safeguards are provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Codes of Practice set up under section 66 of this Act (1), which regulate practice in respect to several matters, including the detention, treatment, and questioning of persons by police officers. Confessions will generally be inadmissible if the provisions of the Codes of Practice are breached by the police (60,61).

The role of the forensic physician when assessing a suspect's fitness for interview is seen as fitting into this overall legal framework, the doctor's primary concern being to recognize any characteristics that might render the individual vulnerable to providing a false confession so that adequate safeguards can be put in place.

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