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Study explores the connection between sleep deprivation and false confessions

There is perhaps nothing more unsettling, more outrageous and more worthy of indignation than when an otherwise innocent person is sent to prison for a crime they did not commit. Indeed, the unfortunate reality is that this happens far more likely than most of us would like to believe.

One context in which this occurs with alarming regularity is false confessions, meaning those situations in which a person admits to having committed a particular crime even though this is not true. If you don't believe that this can happen, consider that statistics show that as many as 15 to 25 percent of the wrongful convictions here in the U.S. can be attributed to these false confessions.

As for the reasons why people confess to crimes they didn't actually commit, research has identified everything from age to the intimidating nature of interrogation rooms as factors in eliciting false confessions.

Interestingly enough, a recently published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences made some rather shocking discoveries concerning the impact that sleep deprivation can have on false confessions.

Here, the researchers recruited 88 undergrad students to take part in two sessions separated by a week in an on-campus sleep laboratory, asking them to complete various computer-related tasks during each and warning them repeatedly that pressing the escape key would compromise the study data.

The night after completion of the second session, half of the participants were kept awake with food, video games and movies, and the other half were allowed to get a full night's sleep.

The following morning, all of the participants were presented with personalized statements summarizing their performance and, more significantly, falsely accusing them of having pressed the escape key. They were then asked to sign the statement if they agreed with what it said.

Here, the researchers discovered the following:

  • Those who went without sleep were nearly five times more likely to sign the document than their well-rested counterparts.
  • When those who initially declined to sign the statement were urged by researchers to sign it a second time, 68 percent of those who went without sleep relented while only 39 percent of their well-rested counterparts followed suit.

"Just being tired may affect the likelihood that an individual confesses to something they didn't actually do," said one of the study's co-authors.

Indeed, the gravity of this study becomes all the more apparent when you consider that the researchers concluded that as many as 17 percent of all criminal interrogations take place from midnight to 8 a.m. and often last for 12-plus hours.

More than anything, what this study really serves to underscore is that anyone under investigation for any sort of crime -- from drug charges to computer crimes -- must give serious consideration to speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible.

At the Law Offices of Horwitz & Citro, P.A., we stand ready to protect the rights of our clients at any time and in any venue. Whether you have been formally charged or are under investigation by state or federal law enforcement officials, please contact us as soon as possible so that we may get to work protecting your rights and your future.