Sara Appleby and Saul Kassin
Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Mar 10 , 2016
For many wrongfully convicted individuals, DNA testing presents a new and invaluable
means of exoneration. In several recently documented cases, however, innocent confessors were
tried and convicted despite DNA evidence that excluded them. In each of these cases, the
prosecutor proposed a speculative theory to explain away the mismatched confession and
exculpatory DNA. Three studies were conducted that pitted confessions against DNA test
results. Study 1 showed that people in general trust DNA evidence far more than self-report,
including a defendant’s confession. Using student and adult community samples, Studies 2 and 3
showed that in cases in which the defendant had confessed to police but was later exculpated by
DNA, prosecutorial theories spun to reconcile the contradiction attenuated the power of
exculpatory DNA, significantly increasing perceptions of the defendant's culpability, the rate of
conviction, and the self-reported influence of the confession. Implications and suggestions for
reform are discussed.
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