Inside the phenomena of false confessions

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Most of us are quick to say no. Yet it's more common than you might think to say "I did it."  but statistics show one in four of those wrongfully convicted—and later exonerated by DNA-- did just that.

Investigators used the Reid technique on Juan Rivera in 1992 to illicit a confession for a crime he did not commit.

It's a process where an officer tells the suspect there is no doubt as to his or her guilt hoping for a true confession.

That often includes hours of relentless interrogation.

Rivera was just 19 at the time, Holly Staker was 11. She was violently raped and killed while babysitting in her Waukegan apartment.

Several weeks later, Rivera was charged with the girl's murder. Police say he confessed to the crime. Rivera was tried and convicted three times without any physical evidence. He would spend 19 years in prison before DNA finally cleared him.

Today he explains why he confessed back then.

"Screaming, shouting, banging the hands against the table, just tell us you killed her,” Rivera recalls police actions at the time.

Rivera says the interrogation was brutal:  at one point he was interviewed for four solid days including one session that lasted 26 hours straight.

He was given coffee and cigarettes only - no food.

Even though Rivera signed a confession, he says he doesn't remember how it unfolded inside the Lake County jail.

“I was in the fetal position in the padded cell when according to records two detectives came to the padded cell and had me read out loud about the confession to them,” he said.

Rob Warden is the former Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

"We have documented scores of cases in which people have confessed to crimes they didn't commit,” says Warden.

He says exhaustion, sleep deprivation and certain police tactics can be enough to extract a false confession from anyone, like in the wildly popular Netflix docudrama “Making a Murderer.”

Steven Avery’s 16-year-old nephew Brandan Dassey confessed to the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach.

Critics believe authorities relied on the Reid technique. The same technique used on Juan Rivera.

Dassey’s attorneys now claim police fed the teen with a low I.Q., hard details of the case during the interrogation, resulting in a false confession.

"These are not people who are weak minded, it's just at a certain moment your will can be broken, as we saw in the Kevin Fox case,” says Warden.

In 2004, Kevin Fox was a married father of two when his three-year-old daughter Riley disappeared from the family's Wilmington home.

Later that day, her body was discovered in a nearby creek. Fox also gave a videotaped confession and spent eight months in jail before he, too, was exonerated by DNA.

For suspects in the hot seat and, at least in the beginning, claim innocence, experts say police tactics can work against them: detectives are allowed to lie to a suspect about evidence while in custody.

"They can tell you such things... Bring you to the point of despair with those kinds of things,” says Warden.

Saul Kassin is a social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has researched and worked with false confessors, including Juan Rivera.

"When you look at the body of cases of known confessions, you look at the time records that were kept it was eight hours, ten, 12, 24 hours. It's clear everyone has a breaking point,” says Kassin.

And in some cases they begin to believe they're guilty because they've heard the story from law enforcement so many times.

"Years later after these guys have been exonerated, you ask them why they confessed… the most typical answer is ‘I just wanted to go home,’” says Kassin.

Here in 2011, Melissa Calusinski is seen showing a cop how she killed a toddler at a Lincolnshire daycare center where she worked.

This came after 79 denials and nine hours of interrogation. Right now her case is on appeal. Her lawyers claim her confession was coerced.

In recent years, confessions have been required to be videotaped in Illinois. That, in theory, protects both sides here. Only time will tell if that requirement will reduce the number of false confessions that take place.