"It is the king of evidence. If you can get someone to confess to a crime, the court is going to find them guilty." -- Jeff Kingston, Temple University in TokyoJapan has a 99% conviction rate and the vast majority of those convictions are supported by confessions. But, as the onion is peeled back, the truth emerges about the ways in which those confessions are obtained.
False confessions aren't just an American phenomenon. We have long seen them on display in show trials in totalitarian nations. Officials who find themselves on the outs with the regime leaders have long been given a choice - confess now or your family will pay.
In Japan a slightly sanitized version of that technique has been found quite effective in obtaining confessions from the innocent. Appeals are made to the suspect to think of his family - to think of the shame his alleged actions would bring upon his parents or his wife or his children. As preserving face is of the utmost importance in Japan, getting the signature on a sheet of paper is often a mere formality.
The very interrogation itself is often so coercive that a suspect will gladly sign a confession prepared by his interrogator just so the torment will end. We're not talking physical torture. We're talking psychological torture. We're talking hours on end in an interrogation room with one or more police officers subjecting a suspect to accusations and implied threats.
But 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 small interview room really knows what happens inside because suspects' interviews take place behind closed doors - without an attorney.And that is the crux of the problem. Without an attorney in the room there is no way to find out exactly what happened. The suspect signed the confession. He's now a convicted criminal. Of course he's going to say he was coerced. Why should anyone believe him?
In Japan, and other countries, it happens because the law doesn't recognize the right of the accused to consult with an attorney before being subjected to interrogation. In the United States it happens because suspects choose to take their chances in the bright lights of the interrogation room. Not being familiar with the psychological tools of the interrogator, they think they can outsmart the officer in the room. They don't understand the ways in which interrogators are trained to take you down a path in which the only option available is to confess.
Throw the suspect a rope. Let him know there's only one way out of the room. Then give him the opening. We know you were there. The crime techs are recovering your fingerprints as we speak. We know it was self-defense.
Before you know it, they've got the signature on the piece of paper and the only question left is how much time will he have to do.