Damned if you don’t: False guilty pleas among exonerees

Damned if you don’t: False guilty pleas among exonerees

False guilty pleas increase stigmatization of exonerees and limit their access to services post-exoneration. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2020, Vol. 26, No. 3, 233–244

False admissions of guilt associated with wrongful convictions undermine people’s perceptions of exonerees


Kyle C. Scherr, Central Michigan University
Christopher J. Normile, Central Michigan University
Samantha Luna, George Mason University
Allison D. Redlich, George Mason University
Megan Lawrence, Central Michigan University
Mary Catlin, Central Michigan University


Exonerees are stigmatized, especially those who have falsely confessed. False confessions prompt a series of negative perceptions that ultimately undermine people’s willingness to support reintegration aids. We extended the nascent body of literature on exoneree stigma by exploring first whether false guilty pleas can precipitate a similar series of perceptions and judgments and, second, the role of exoneree responsibility as an underlying mechanism. Participants (N = 290) were randomly assigned to read 1 of 4 news stories in which the exoneree falsely confessed, falsely pleaded guilty, both, or neither and then offered their perceptions and judgments of the exoneree. Unique main effects, but not an interaction, among exonerees who falsely confessed or falsely pleaded guilty were observed. These exonerees were seen as less intelligent, which was associated with beliefs that the exoneree suffered mental health issues, was more responsible for the wrongful conviction, and not entirely innocent. The series of appraisals culminated in judgments that exonerees who falsely admitted guilt were less deserving of reintegration support than exonerees who did not falsely admit guilt. We end with discussions of how the results advance our understanding of the basic stigma against exonerees and practical implications for innocents in the legal system.


wrongful convictions, exonerees, false confessions, false guilty pleas, stigma-by-association

Summary of the Research

“In the last 30 years over 2,500 innocent people have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated in the United States. These exonerations have shed light on the postexoneration challenges faced by exonerees. Experimental research has highlighted that one contributing factor in particular—false confessions— can especially influence perceptions of exonerees and people’s willingness to support both monetary and nonmonetary reintegration aids for exonerees.” (p. 233)

“It is unknown how false guilty pleas, which are both similar to and distinct from false confessions, influence perceptions of exonerees. Moreover, research has only recently started identifying the underlying mechanisms associated with a person’s willingness to support reintegration services for exonerees. Here, we sought to replicate the effect of false confessions on perceptions of exonerees, examine the novel idea of whether false guilty pleas precipitate a similar series of undermining effects as false confessions, and test whether perceived exoneree responsibility is associated with the series of negative judgments that ultimately undermine support for reintegration services (i.e., support for psychological counseling, career counseling, and job training). We focus on false confessions and false guilty pleas in particular because these two contributors to wrongful convictions can preclude access to postconviction and postexoneration relief.” (p. 233)

“Once exonerated, the wrongly convicted encounter a multitude of postexoneration challenges. The wrongly convicted frequently struggle to find immediate housing, transportation, employment, and means to expunge their false criminal record. Many exonerees tend to isolate themselves, suffer from mental health issues (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder), face financial difficulties, and often struggle to rebuild relationships with family and friends.” (p. 233)

“Unlike the majority of parolees who have access to services such as job placement, psychological counseling, and education, the wrongly convicted are often released from prison without prior warning and without access to postrelease services. Indeed, less than one fifth of state compensation statues include employment assistance/training or counseling/mental health services. Among states that do have compensation statutes, financial compensation is the most consistent resource available to exonerees. However, between 21 and 25% of state compensation statutes exclude exonerees from receiving compensation, financial or otherwise, if they falsely pleaded guilty or otherwise contributed to their own conviction (i.e., by falsely confessing).” (pp. 233–234)

“False confessions and false guilty pleas have contributed to a nontrivial number of wrongful convictions. False confessions are associated with 12% of all wrongful convictions in general and almost 30% of all DNA exonerations in the United States. Generally, a false confession is defined as a statement provided to the police by an individual who admits guilt or takes responsibility (either partially or fully) for a crime they did not commit.” (p. 234)

“Whereas false confessions have garnered significant attention, the issue of false guilty pleas has received notably less. A false guilty plea occurs when an individual agrees to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit, generally in response to an agreement made with a prosecutor. Despite garnering less attention, false guilty pleas are more prevalent among known exonerations, accounting for 20% of all wrongful convictions (in contrast to 12% for false confessions.” (p. 234)

“Six state compensation statutes (as of 2012) preclude those who falsely pleaded guilty, likely because they are viewed as contributing to their wrongful conviction. Such statutes demonstrate a lack of knowledge of why innocent defendants plead guilty. When an innocent defendant pleads guilty, there are systematic and individual reasons for making such a decision. Defense attorneys often recommend accepting plea offers, and when asked why they pleaded guilty (either truly or falsely), defendants will often cite pressure from their attorney. Experimental research demonstrates innocents’ reliance on their attorneys— of the innocent participants advised to go to trial, 4% pleaded guilty compared to 58% of those advised by an advocate to take the plea. Postconviction and postexoneration rules that either preclude or limit individuals who pleaded guilty from seeking relief disregard the overwhelming impact of situational influences on innocents’ decision making.” (pp. 234–235)

“In the present study, we examined the degree to which false admissions of guilt prompt negative, downstream perceptions and judgments of those exonerated of wrongful convictions. We first tested the abilities of false confessions and false guilty pleas to uniquely engender a sequence of perceptions and judgments starting by undermining people’s perceptions of the exoneree’s intelligence, which, in turn, were associated with beliefs that the exoneree suffered mental health problems, was more responsible for the wrongful conviction, was not entirely innocent, and ultimately was less deserving of postexoneration reintegration services than exonerees who did not offer a false admission of guilt. In a follow-up set of analyses, we explored the potential for the two false admissions of guilt to interact. Although there are differences between false confessions and guilty pleas, it is an open question whether these differences are perceived as well.” (p. 235)

“Data were collected from 290 (39.70% women; 3 participants did not report) workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). […] Participants were U.S. residents ranging from 21–70 years old (Mage = 36.40, SD = 10.74; 3 participants did not report). Participants received $1 as compensation for their participation. Participants were mostly White (80%), followed by African American (8%), Asian/Pacific Islander (5%), Native American (1%), and mixed race (3%; 5 participants did not indicate race). Neither race nor sex were related to any of the three reintegration outcomes. However, older participants were more likely than younger participants to believe exonerees were deserving of psychological counseling, r = .118, p =.046, career counseling, r = .133, p = .024, and job training, r =.152, p = .010.” (p. 235)

“Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions based on a 2 (False confession: present vs. absent) X 2 (False guilty plea: present vs. absent) between-subjects design. All participants read a news story that detailed the exoneration of Daniel Cooper, a man who was wrongly convicted of murder but later exonerated by DNA evidence.” (pp. 235–236)

“The observed effects extend the nascent exoneree literature in several ways. Like false confessions, wrongful convictions associated with false guilty pleas precipitated a series of negative judgments and perceptions that ultimately resulted in people believing the exoneree was less deserving of reintegration support compared to exonerees who did not falsely admit wrongdoing. Specifically, exonerees who falsely admitted guilt (i.e., either falsely confessed or falsely pleaded guilty) were perceived as less intelligent, which was associated with beliefs that the exoneree suffered from mental health issues, was more responsible for the wrongful conviction, and not entirely innocent (despite being exonerated via DNA evidence). The series of judgments and perceptions culminated in a belief that exonerees who falsely admitted guilt were less deserving of reintegration support than exonerees who did not falsely admit to their guilt. Thus, although false confessions and false guilty pleas are objectively different (though share similarities as well), our findings indicate that individuals who offer either type of false admission are perceived similarly.” (p. 240)

“However, we did not observe an interactive influence between false confessions and false guilty pleas on the series of judgments and perceptions. One potential explanation stems from the idea of a threshold criterion. It could be the case that either the presence of a false confession or a false guilty plea meets a threshold necessary to prompt the series of judgments thereby making the influence of any subsequent triggering factors negligible. Participants’ judgments may also have been skewed by a consistency attribution wherein they believed that Daniel’s confession was, after all, not false if he also pleaded guilty. Regardless, future research is needed to further explore the nuances and constraints of how false admissions of guilt influence people’s perceptions and judgments.” (p. 240)

“Two basic social– cognitive factors—the fundamental attribution error and stigma-by-association— help to understand people’s judgments and perceptions related to exonerees who have falsely admitted guilt. The findings provide further support for the idea that people make the fundamental attribution error when ascribing characteristics to exonerees who falsely admit guilt. Extending this idea to false guilty pleas, our findings suggest that, in order to make sense of counterintuitive decisions and behavior without expending substantial cognitive resources, people may believe that those who falsely admit guilt are dispositionally unique compared to healthy, well-adjusted adults.” (pp. 240–241)

“Furthermore, people strongly believed that exonerees who falsely admitted guilt were responsible for their wrongful conviction. Instead of appreciating the prevailing situational influences motivating false admissions of guilt, people ascribe personal agency when describing exonerees’ fate after they falsely admit guilt. Overall, the observed effects provide compelling evidence that laypeople do not understand the difference between falsely confessing versus falsely pleading guilty. They are likely to attribute both types of false admissions of guilt to dispositional reasons and, in both instances, ascribe personal responsibility to the exoneree.” (p. 241)

“People’s judgments and perceptions of exonerees are also motivated by stigma-by-association processes. Even though these individuals have been exonerated of their wrongful conviction, people continue to stigmatize exonerees as criminals because of their association with guilty offenders and sometimes perceive no meaningful differences between the two. The observed effects substantiate the potency of the stigma-by-association for exonerees who have falsely admitted guilt. The associative biases undermining judgments and willingness to support these exonerees is so compelling that it overwhelmed the fact that DNA exonerated these individuals.” (p. 241)

“Exonerees who falsely admit guilt are particularly stigmatized. These exonerees are perceived as more responsible for their conviction, not entirely innocent and, consequently, less deserving of reintegration services. The string of negative perceptions and judgments help to explain the thinking underlying state statutes that deny support to exonerees who falsely admit guilt. The observed effects add to a growing literature demonstrating the magnitude of stigma that exonerees who falsely admitted guilt face and establish the need to institute policy reforms for these innocent individuals whom the criminal justice system failed to protect.” (p. 242)

Translating Research into Practice

“The most important practical implication of this research is to guarantee access to reintegration to all exonerees without exception. Following previous calls, guaranteeing access to all exonerees is imperative because it is the only way to overcome the biases some innocents experience upon being exonerated. Exonerees who falsely admitted guilt should not face the possibility of being disqualified from accessing aids because making such decisions on a case-by-case basis allows the biases observed in this study to seep into the decision-making process. In so doing, some exonerees—those who have falsely admitted guilt—may continue to be excluded from certain opportunities and benefits. Given that exonerees often suffer specific mental health issues related to their wrongful conviction experience, some exonerees could be prevented from accessing necessary health care. Moreover, people judged exonerees as less deserving of career counseling and job training the less intelligent they perceived the exoneree—a judgment that is more likely to affect an exoneree who had falsely admitted guilt.” (p. 242)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The sample comprised MTurk workers, thereby increasing its generalizability in the sense that it was not based on an educated, privileged, student demographic. Despite safeguards implemented to minimize artificial responding and ensure attention and motivation, replicating the results across samples in contexts characterized by tighter control would be advantageous.” (p. 242)

“It is also important to examine these effects among samples of professionals who more directly influence exonerees’ outcomes such as the recent finding that hiring managers contacted more references of exonerees and offered them lower wages than a control applicant.” (p. 242)

“At a minimum, assessing lay people’s, policymakers’, and professionals’ accurate understanding of issues related to guilty pleas, wrongful convictions, and exonerations is an imperative next step. To this end, it would be useful for future research to examine whether certain interrogation factors and plea-relevant negotiations (e.g., false evidence ploys, minimization themes, withholding exculpatory evidence) are understood and influence people’s perceptions and judgments related to exonerees who have falsely admitted guilt.” (p. 242)

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Looking for training? Here are a few suggestions:

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.