Confessions in Intimate Partner Homicide

By Sarah Feliciano, M.A., Cari J. Robins, J.D., M.A., Spyridon Fletouris, M.A., Miriam Felps, M.A., Louis B. Schlesinger, Ph.D., and Sarah W. Craun, Ph.D.


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A confession by the perpetrator of a crime leads to a shortened process of identifying persons involved in the act, aids investigators in finding corroborating evidence, and can help explain motive. It may have more impact on a jury verdict than any other type of evidence.1

While conviction rates may prove higher in cases where the defendant has confessed, obtaining those confessions poses a challenge for investigators.2 Law enforcement personnel must adhere to the rules of law and criminal procedure and avoid unethical methods that tend to produce false or coerced confessions. While most research has focused on those unlawfully obtained confessions, little exists that identifies methods to help investigators gain lawful, truthful disclosures.

It seems that almost all research on confessions—voluminous for more than 25 years—is related in some way, either directly or indirectly, to false confessions, the influence of confessions on judgments of guilt, or the effect of confessions on some other variable, such as alibi corroboration.3 And, almost all of the research has focused on confessions made to the police during an interrogation.

However, some exceptions exist. For example, one study examined factors that led individuals to confess.4 It found that those who had no prior experience in the criminal justice system, lacked social support, and—most important—believed that the evidence against them was strong were most likely to admit guilt. The study’s authors did, however, caution police interrogators to take care not to wrongfully influence a suspect’s decision to confess, particularly in cases with individuals exhibiting these characteristics.

Primary confessions (an admission by the subject directly to the authorities) as well as secondary confessions (an admission by the subject to a third party, such as a jailhouse informant) are two possible ways an individual can confess.5 Secondary confessions may have as much weight with a jury as primary confessions; however, they can prove unreliable and may turn out to be false confessions.6

The current study aimed to examine the confession process itself—specifically, to observe the different ways individuals admitted guilt. Despite some expectations, subjects do not always confess directly to police. Because the way people confess—including to whom and the manner in which they do so—may differ depending on multiple factors, including the type of crime, the authors focused the initial study exclusively on the confession process in intimate partner homicides.

Sample

The authors studied a nonrandom national sample of 70 intimate partner homicides—which included 59 male and 11 female offenders (mean age 37.3 years) and 57 female and 13 male victims (mean age 35.5 years)—wherein the offender confessed guilt.7 These were closed, fully adjudicated state and local cases contributed by law enforcement agencies around the country for research and part of an ongoing project between the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

For the purposes of this article, intimate partner homicide refers to the killing of someone to whom the offender had been married, with whom the offender was cohabitating, or with whom the offender had a romantic, close personal, or sexual relationship, whether ongoing or intermittent.

Forty-three of the offenders were Caucasian, 13 were African American, 6 Hispanic, 2 Asian, 2 Native American, and 1 Middle Eastern. In three cases race was unclear. Fifty-one victims were Caucasian, 9 were African American, 4 Hispanic, 3 Asian, 2 Native American, and 1 Middle Eastern.

Results

Because of the complexity and variation of human behavior, the ways individuals confess prove equally complicated. Accordingly, any method of classification will have flaws. However, without some sort of organizational system, events would remain chaotic and poorly understood.

Primary Methods of Confession

Findings revealed five primary ways offenders confess (i.e., the first way they revealed guilt).8 In addition, almost one-third of offenders confessed in multiple ways.

Confession to a Non-Law Enforcement Individual

Most often, offenders first confessed to a non-law enforcement individual (26 cases, 37.1 percent). These subjects revealed guilt to someone other than a police officer, member of the investigative team, emergency medical technician or 911 operator.

A 47-year-old military officer bludgeoned and strangled his 38-year-old wife. He filed a missing person’s report with the police, then retained an attorney when his wife’s body was found dumped under a bridge. After he was arrested, he telephoned a relative and confessed to the murder. He never gave a direct confession to law enforcement. Once the body was found, investigators obtained physical evidence that also implicated the defendant.

Results showed that the majority of non-law enforcement confessions involved offenders confiding to relatives or friends, rather than to distant acquaintances, such as a cellmate or coworker.

Voluntary-Spontaneous Confession

A voluntary-spontaneous confession (20 cases, 28.6 percent) occurred before or during the investigation. Offenders made these confessions directly to law enforcement personnel (e.g., police investigators, responding officers, police not connected to the investigation, 911 operators). They are not the result of a challenge by investigators.

A 41-year-old male stabbed and strangled his 39-year-old former girlfriend, then robbed her home. An hour after police arrived on the scene, the offender returned to the victim’s home to inquire about her condition, spontaneously stating, “I murdered her, you don’t have to investigate.”

Other common methods of voluntary-spontaneous confessions in the sample included confessing during a 911 call, confessing without prompting during the police interview, calling the police directly to confess, and walking into a police station to surrender for the crime. Voluntary-spontaneous confessions often occurred along with another type of confession.

“Despite some expectations, subjects do not always confess directly to police.”

Evidence-Based Confession

An evidence-based confession (16 cases, 22.9 percent) was made after investigators presented evidence to the subject during the police interview (i.e., presentation of physical evidence inconsistent with the subject’s claim, or statement inconsistencies). In no case was false evidence presented to the offender to induce a confession.

A 34-year-old male bludgeoned his 33-year-old wife to death, hid her body in a closet and then in the trunk of his car, and dumped the body in the woods about 1 week later. The police interviewed the husband as a suspect, challenging him with evidence (such as phone records and bank statements) disproving his multiple false assertions. Upon repeated confrontation with his statement inconsistencies, as well as physical evidence, including blood found in his car, the offender eventually admitted guilt.

Suicide Note Confession

A suicide note confession (7 cases, 10 percent) occurred when an offender admitted to killing the victim in a note or message written before committing suicide.

A 29-year-old male strangled and dismembered his 31-year-old girlfriend. He wrote a detailed six-page confession addressed to the police, which he left at the scene. He also spray-painted several messages on a wall professing his love for the victim and directing the police where to look. After partying for some time, the offender jumped off a nearby roof to his death.

A desire to atone for the crime by taking one’s own life proved a common theme in the suicide note confession cases.

“Very often, the content of the confession—and motivation for the homicide—changed as the interrogation progressed.”

Confession Involving a Claim of Self-Defense

A confession involving a claim of self-defense (1 case, 1.4 percent) occurred when a subject admitted guilt but explained that they committed the homicide in self-defense. Although the sample included only one such case, this type of confession seemed different enough to warrant a separate category. It also could conceivably involve other immediate defenses, such as responding to psychotic symptoms or being under duress.

A 27-year-old police officer shot his 25-year-old wife during a domestic struggle. He claimed that she attacked him with a knife and then grabbed his service revolver, which went off during the struggle. He called the police to report the killing and said it was in self-defense. He maintained this assertion in spite of some evidence inconsistency. The case was tried, and he was acquitted.

Multiple Methods of Confession

The primary methods outlined above describe the first way offenders confessed their guilt. However, in 22 of the studied cases (31.4 percent), the offender confessed in several different ways. For example, the subject might place a call to 911, confess to a family member or friend, and ultimately confess to law enforcement during a formal interview. In some cases, these offenders retracted their confessions or reframed them in a different way as the case evolved.

A 21-year-old male stabbed his 45-year-old male partner after a confrontation during which the partner threatened him with eviction. He first confessed the murder to two friends at different times, but neither believed him. When the police questioned him, he initially claimed he was not home during the time of the murder. The investigators confronted him with the inconsistencies in his statement and his timeline of events, which ultimately resulted in his admission of guilt.

Of the 22 cases in the authors’ sample displaying multiple methods of confession, 14 (63.6 percent) were confessions given to individuals not connected to law enforcement, plus spontaneous-voluntary confessions to the police. Four cases (18.2 percent) involved confessing to members other than law enforcement, as well as an evidence-based confession. Three cases (13.6 percent) were spontaneous-voluntary confessions, followed by evidence-based confessions. One case (4.5 percent) involved confessing to an individual not connected to law enforcement, along with a suicide note.

Very often, the content of the confession—and motivation for the homicide—changed as the interrogation progressed. For example, three individuals eventually presented battered woman syndrome defenses, and six claimed the homicide was accidental.

Discussion

The authors reviewed 70 cases of intimate partner homicide and found that in 53 of these cases (76 percent), confessions were made without the police interrogating the suspect. The relatively high incidence of confessions made to non-law enforcement individuals, spontaneous-voluntary confessions made to members of law enforcement, and confessions left in suicide notes are important and unexpected findings. The results of this study—particularly information on spontaneous admissions, confessions to non-law enforcement, and evidence-based interviews—have practical application for investigators.

First responders should undergo training and preparation so that when they report to incidents that may involve spontaneous admissions, like suspected intimate partner homicides, they are ready for such disclosures. While this seems intuitive, sometimes in the chaos of the initial response, no one is available to sit with the intimate partner. However, investigators can gain a great deal simply by documenting the first contact with these individuals. Many departments require body cameras for uniformed officers. These may serve to capture any disclosures for future use at trial and provide transparency for how the disclosure was made.

It may prove prudent to assign a single officer or detective as the sole point of contact for the intimate partner. This serves to build rapport, ensure continuity of information obtained from the partner, and insulate the individual from contaminating the crime scene or overhearing investigative information.

This study demonstrated that a number of disclosures are made to family members or other third parties; accordingly, consideration should go to developing a strategy to have some control over these types of admissions. If procedures allow and legal considerations are followed, a jurisdiction should consider placing family members with the subject in waiting rooms or interview rooms that investigators can monitor. Also, agencies should consider seeking the cooperation of family or friends who are amenable to act in an informant-type capacity, should procedures and laws of the  jurisdiction allow.

The finding that several subjects confessed upon presentation of evidence does not necessitate a smoking gun, per se. In such cases, investigators simply can lay out the evidence they have to the minutiae, which may lead to a statement against interest.

One might argue that a confession given to a non-law enforcement individual (such as a relative or friend) or a spontaneous-voluntary confession to law enforcement could be false. In the same way, a suicide note confession may be an attempt to protect someone else who actually committed the murder. Ultimately, all confessions come under the scrutiny of the legal process and may be litigated in a motion to suppress. But, among the subjects in the authors’ sample, there exists no evidence that any of the confessions were false, and none of the offenders or their attorneys advanced such a claim during any part of the litigation.

Conclusion

All murder is not alike; there exist different circumstances, clinical pictures, dynamics, diagnoses, and prognoses.9 Accordingly, offenders who commit different types of homicides also might confess differently.

In the future, the authors plan to study different types of homicide to see whether the confession process differs from what was observed in intimate partner homicide cases. For instance, one anticipation is that a study of confessions in sexual homicide or bias homicide would reveal different results than this study.

The goal of such research is to add to the understanding of the confession process in general, and of how problems can arise in obtaining a confession.

“First responders should undergo training and preparation so that when they report to incidents that may involve spontaneous admissions, like suspected intimate partner homicides, they are ready for such disclosures.”

Ms. Feliciano is a graduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, New York.

Supervisory Special Agent Robins serves in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-4 in Quantico, Virginia, and can be reached at cjrobins@fbi.gov.

Mr. Fletouris is a graduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, New York.

Ms. Felps is a graduate student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, New York.

Dr. Schlesinger is a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, New York.

Dr. Craun is a research coordinator in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-5 in Quantico, Virginia, and can be reached at swcraun@fbi.gov.


Endnotes

1 Edwin D. Driver, “Confessions and the Social Psychology of Coercion,” Harvard Law Review 82, no. 1 (November 1968): 41-62, accessed September 23, 2019, http://doi.org/10.2307/1339294; and Jeremy J. Shifton, “How Confession Characteristics Impact Juror Perceptions of Evidence in Criminal Trials,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law 37, no. 1 (February 2019): 90-108, accessed April 16, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1002/bsl.2398.
2 Arthur E. Sutherland, Jr., “Crime and Confession,” Harvard Law Review 79, no. 1 (November 1965): 21-41, accessed September 23, 2019, http://doi.org/10.2307/1338857; and Stavroula Soukara, Ray Bull, Aldert Vrij, Mark Turner, and Julie Cherryman, “What Really Happens in Police Interviews of Suspects? Tactics and Confessions,” Psychology, Crime & Law 15, no. 6 (August 2009): 493-506, accessed April 16, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/10683160802201827.
3 See Gisli H. Gudjonsson, The Psychology of False Confessions: Forty Years of Science and Practice (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2018); Saul M. Kassin and Lawrence S. Wrightsman, “Confession Evidence,” in The Psychology of Evidence and Trial Procedure, ed. Saul M. Kassin and Lawrence S. Wrightsman (Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 1985), 67-94; Saul M. Kassin, “The Psychology of Confession Evidence,” American Psychologist 52, no. 3 (March 1997): 221-233, accessed September 23, 2019, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0003-066X.52.3.221; Saul M. Kassin, “Confession Evidence: Commonsense Myths and Misconceptions,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 35, no. 10 (October 2008): 1309-1322, accessed September 23, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0093854808321557; G. Daniel Lassiter and Christian A. Meissner, eds., Police Interrogations and False Confessions: Current Research, Practice, and Policy Recommendations (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010); Gregory De Clue, “Psychological Consultation in Cases Involving Interrogations and Confessions,” Journal of Psychiatry & Law 33, no. 3 (September 2005): 313-358, accessed September 23, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F009318530503300302; Laura Smalarz, Stephanie Madon, and Anna Turosak, “Defendant Stereotypicality Moderates the Effect of Confession Evidence on Judgments of Guilt,” Law and Human Behavior 42, no. 4 (August 2018): 355-368, accessed September 23, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1037/lhb0000286; and Megan R. Kienzle and Lora M. Levett, “A Novel Paradigm for Examining Alibi Corroboration and Evidence Interaction: Does a Confession Affect the Likelihood of Alibi Corroboration for Friends and Strangers?” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 24, no. 3 (August 2018): 353-364, accessed September 23, 2019, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-21198-001.
4 Nadine Deslauriers-Varin, Patrick Lussier, and Michel St-Yves, “Confessing Their Crime: Factors Influencing the Offender’s Decision to Confess to the Police,” Justice Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2011): 113-145, accessed September 23, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/07418820903218966.
5 Stacy Ann Wetmore, Jeffrey S. Neuschatz, and Scott D. Gronlund, “On the Power of Secondary Confession Evidence,” Psychology, Crime & Law 20, no. 4 (2014): 339-357, accessed September 23, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1080/1068316X.2013.777963.
6 Ibid.
7 This sample of cases was provided to the authors by students at the FBI’s National Academy for research purposes.
8 The classification system was developed by the following graduate students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Kelsey Dammeyer, Sarah Feliciano, Miriam Felps, Spyridon Fletouris, and Meghan Lay.
9 Eugene Revitch and Louis B. Schlesinger, Psychopathology of Homicide (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1981).