Consider what happened to 17-year-old Martin Tankleff. In 1988, he woke up early one morning to find his mother laying in her bloodied bed and his father slumped in his bloodied study chair, gurgling air but unconscious. Mr. Tankleff called 911. Although he had no cuts or bruises and no history of violence, he was separated from family members and interrogated.
After hours of accusations and denials, the lead detective launched into a series of lies about evidence, culminating in a staged phone call to the hospital. He returned with good news and bad. The good news, he told Mr. Tankleff, was that his father had regained consciousness. The bad news was that his father had said Mr. Tankleff was his attacker. Both statements were untrue (his father had been in a coma and died shortly thereafter).
Mr. Tankleff became disoriented and lost his grip on reality. My father never lies, he thought. If he said I did it, I must have. Mr. Tankleff broke down and confessed, then almost immediately recanted, after which he was tried and convicted. Eighteen years later, his conviction was vacated. He is now a New York-based lawyer and criminal justice reform advocate.
This type of deception is still very much in use. Consider the plight of Malthe Thomsen, born and raised in Denmark in a family of educators. In 2014, at 22 years old, Mr. Thomsen came to New York for a six-month teaching internship at a private Manhattan preschool.
One day, an assistant teacher at the school alleged that Mr. Thomsen was molesting children. The school investigated, cleared Mr. Thomsen, and fired the assistant, who had a history of making false accusations. She then filed a complaint with the police. Without warning, a sex-crimes detective woke Mr. Thomsen at 6 a.m., took him to a police station, interrogated him off camera for four hours, and then delivered him to an assistant district attorney for an on-camera confession.
The lead detective had told Mr. Thomsen that surveillance videos showed him touching children in sexual ways. That was false. No such footage existed. Mr. Thomsen had no idea that the police could misrepresent evidence. In Denmark, as in most Western countries, this tactic is not permitted. Mr. Thomsen began to doubt himself; he went on to sign a confession. Then he went on camera and said, “This morning, I had a rude awakening.”
He was arrested, charged, labeled a “sex monster” in local newspapers and sent to Rikers Island. Lacking any evidence, Manhattan prosecutors ultimately dismissed all charges. Mr. Thomsen returned home, traumatized; the city paid him an undisclosed sum. Shortly before he died at age 27, he told his story in a Danish documentary titled “False Confessions.”
Scientific proof of the risk posed by false evidence lends credence to these tragic stories. This proof is derived from two sources. First, basic psychology shows that misinformation renders people vulnerable to manipulation. Specifically, false information (as presented through confederates, counterfeit test results, false feedback and the like) can substantially alter people’s visual perceptions, beliefs, emotional states, memories and even certain physiological functions — as seen in the classic placebo effect in medicine.