Reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, I was struck by her formulation of a question that I had wondered about myself, and never seen explicitly stated:

Why the Soviet secret police were so obsessed with confession remains a matter for debate…

What is the motivation to force a prisoner to “confess”? Even if the interrogator believes the charge to be true, why is it important for the prisoner to say it? Surely a confession under duress is not going to convince anyone else. Of course, you may want to use a confession extracted under torture to deceive someone else into thinking this was a confession freely offered, but it is hard to see how that can be relevant to system where torture is standard.

Furthermore, in the pre-video era, it’s hard to see why anyone would go to the trouble of manufacturing a deception by torturing the prisoner to put his own signature on the confession, rather than simply forging the signature. And yet it was important enough for interrogators to spend months attempting to extract the “genuine” confession, and for prisoners to submit themselves to agonies to resist.

The officer investigating Vladimir Tchernavin, a scientist accused of “wrecking” and sabotage, threatened him with death if he refused to confess. At another point, he told him he would get a more “lenient” camp sentence if he confessed. Eventually, he actually begged Tchernavin to give a false confession. “We, the examining officers, are also often forced to lie, we also say things which cannot be entered into the record, and to which we would never sign our names,” his interrogator told him, pleadingly.

In the context of the Inquisition, at least, it is possible to believe in a certain sort of twisted altruism: Being convinced of the truth of the accusation, the inquisitor believes the unrepentant sinner’s soul to be forfeit to Hell. His life is of no account, but the soul can be rescued, if only said sinner can be moved to whole-hearted penitence. In this context, the confession has its own value, and it is clear why it must come from the heretic’s own lips.

This is not merely a question for understanding theocracies and totalitarian regimes. One of the striking results of the Innocence Project, the programme that used DNA evidence both practically, to exonerate prisoners wrongfully accused in the pre-DNA era, and theoretically, to investigate how miscarriages of justice had occurred was that many of those wrongfully convicted had given false confessions; in some cases, the confession was the only evidence introduced in the trial.

When I read the book by Dwyer and Scheck, I was astonished by their claim that juries almost invariably find confessions convincing, even in the absence of physical evidence, even when the accused has repudiated the confession. The standard argument seems to be, “Why would he falsely accuse himself?” It is easy to understand why someone would repudiate the confession, to avoid punishment, so that seems to resolve the contradiction between the two testimonies in favour of the confession.

My own instinct has always been exactly the opposite, though I have never served on a jury: I would wonder, what induced this person to make a confession, which seems to have only disadvantages and no advantages for him? Even if he’s blurted out the truth, surely most people would have the sense to think that signing a confession can’t possibly make life any better for him. In the event that he’s decided the crime was all a mistake, and he’d like to tell the truth, to bring closure — and such commitment to truth or justice are, I am convinced, uncommon, even among noncriminals — one would assume he  Surely some sort of pressure was applied, even if it was as simple as to keep asking the questions, until the accused felt that confessing was the only way to escape the endless loop. An implied promise that “you can go home after you’ve told us the truth” might be enough to make someone give up, and hope to straighten things out afterward. Sherlock Holmes stories and James Bond villains aside, it seems to me that the confession motivated by the desire to let the truth be known would be a rare event.

I can imagine someone feeling either remorseful or not really responsible for a crime, and so confessing to the facts. But if they actually wanted to clear up the crime, surely the person who committed it would be able to provide material proof of their involvement (as they sometimes do; for instance, the murderer showing where the body is buried). Exactly for that reason, if the police show up in court with confession and little else, I would almost be inclined to view that as negative evidence.

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