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Flowers Case

The Role of Social Science in Confession Evidence

Compiled by Samantha Kennedy, Daisy Lee, Jackson Morrison, Destiny Reyes, and Christopher Vantrease

Overview of the case

    On July 16, 1996, four people were shot and killed in Tardy Furniture Store in downtown Winona, a small town in Mississippi. Parker Yesko, The Tardy Furniture store murders: What happened that morning in July '96?, APM Reports (May 1, 2018). Despite a lack of direct evidence tying him to the crime, Curtis Flowers, a black man then in his late twenties, became the center of attention for both Winona law enforcement and the prosecutor in the case. See generally In the Dark Season Two, APM Reports, Pending trial, Flowers was arrested and put in a cell in a local jail. Dave Mann, Recanted testimony, subjective science helps put Curtis Flowers on death row, APM Reports (May 27, 2018).
    In March of 1997, Fredrick Veal was arrested for stealing his sister’s car and put into the same cell as Flowers. Id. Veal would later tell law enforcement that during a late-night conversation, Flowers confessed to the Tardy Furniture Store murders. Id. Another cell-mate, Maurice Hawkins, similarly told law enforcement that Flowers had confessed to the murders over a game of cards. Id. Nobody else in the cell was awake to hear either of these confessions. In the Dark, Episode 4: The Confessions, APM Reports (May 15, 2018). Both Veal and Hawkins would testify that Flowers had confessed to the crime at Flowers’ murder trial, providing key evidence that played a crucial role in Flowers’ ultimate conviction. Dave Mann, Recanted testimony, subjective science helps put Curtis Flowers on death row, APM Reports (May 27, 2018).
    However, the case did not end with Flowers’ conviction; in fact, Flowers’ case has now been tried six times in Mississippi and is currently pending before the Supreme Court of the United States. Madeleine Baran and Parker Yesko, Supreme Court agrees to hear Curtis Flowers appeal, APM Reports (Nov. 2, 2018). Neither Veal nor Hawkins testified in any of the subsequent trials. Curtiss Flowers, on the other hand, has been sitting on death row for roughly 22 years. Dave Mann, Recanted testimony, subjective science helps put Curtis Flowers on death row, APM Reports (May 27, 2018).
    Nearly 20 years after Veal and Hawkins testified in the first trial, both men would sign sworn affidavits recanting their testimony. Id. In Veal’s affidavit, Veal stated that Sheriff Ricky Banks and District Attorney Doug Evans orchestrated the confession, placing Veal in the cell with the express purpose of obtaining a confession. Id.; In the Dark, Episode 4: The Confessions, APM Reports (May 15, 2018). Despite the confessions being recanted, Flowers remains on death row based in part on this recanted evidence. Dave Mann, Recanted testimony, subjective science helps put Curtis Flowers on death row, APM Reports (May 27, 2018).

Issues with False Confessions

The Flowers case raises several concerning questions that will be addressed on this webpage. Specifically, we seek to address the following:

1. To what extent is a prosecutor able to rely on a jailhouse confession? a. Are jailhouse confessions circumstantial or direct evidence?

2. What drives a person to falsely confess?

3. How reliable is confession evidence in general particularly considering different types of confession evidence?

4. Are jailhouse confessions reliable? a. What may be done to combat potential prejudice to defendants caused by the introduction of potentially unreliable jailhouse confession evidence?

The Law

What Must the State Prove?

    For a confession to be admitted as evidence into the courtroom, the State must prove that the confession was voluntary. Agee v. State, 185 So.2d 671, 672. A confession is voluntary when it is made without any threats, coercion, or offers of reward. Id.
    Further, to have the confession evidence admitted, the State must also show that the probative value of the confession evidence substantially outweighs the danger of, “unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” MS. R. Rev. 403. The court must apply a balancing test to determine the admissibility. Lesley v. State. 606 So.2d 1084, 1090 (Miss. 1992). Appellate courts review admission of evidence under the abuse-of-discretion standard. Johnson v. State, 204 So.3d 763, 766 (Miss. 2016). In Bruton v. U.S., Justice White, in his dissent, noted that a defendant’s confession is extremely probative. See Bruton v. U.S., 391 u.S. 123, 139 (White, J., dissenting).

Circumstantial Evidence Burden Shifting

   Circumstantial evidence is “evidence which, without going directly to prove the existence of a fact, gives rise to a logical inference that such fact does exist.” McInnis v. State, 61 So.3d. 872, 875. Under Mississippi law, if, “…in any essential respect the state relies [solely] on circumstantial evidence, it must be such as to exclude every other reasonable hypothesis than that the contention of the state is true, and that throughout the burden of proof is on the state” Westbrook v. State, 202 Miss. 426, 433(1947).
   If there is a finding that the state relied solely on circumstantial evidence, the court must instruct the jury that the State, “must prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and to the exclusion of all reasonable hypotheses consistent with innocence.” Ladner, 584 So. 2d at 750-761.

Are Jailhouse Confessions circumstantial or direct evidence?

    The Supreme Court of Mississippi has previously held that jailhouse confessions of a crime are direct, rather than circumstantial evidence. Rubenstein v. State, 941 So.2d 725, 785-786 (Miss. 2006). Further, the confession, which is direct evidence of a crime, is not limited to a confession to a law enforcement officer and includes admissions to any person. Lardner, 584 So.2d 743 (Miss. 1991). For example, in Lardner, the court did not err in refusing to grant a circumstantial evidence instruct as the state provided direct evidence in the form of a witness testifying they overhead the defendant say to another person that he had killed his wife. Id.

Application to Flowers

  The State Proffered two pieces of confession evidence during trial. The first was Frederick Veal who was placed in Flowers cell by the state with the purpose of gathering a confession. At trial he testified that one night he and Flowers were staying up late and Flowers confessed the killing. The second piece of confession evidence comes from Maurice Hawkins who was also in Flowers’ cell. He testified that while the two were playing solitaire Flowers told him he hated that he had to kill his own cousin.
   Both of Flowers’s confessions were voluntary- they were made without any threats, coercion, or offers of reward. Further, this confession evidence will be admitted as its probative value greatly outweighs its prejudicial value, and the admission of evidence is only a reversible error if the trial court abused their discretion.
   Finally, by presenting confession evidence, the state has not relied solely on circumstantial evidence and therefore, the state does not face the burden of eliminating all other reasonable hypotheses.

What Makes Someone Falsely Confess?

There is not a single cause of false confessions- police-induced false confession results from a multistep sequence of influence, persuasion, compliance, while frequently involving psychological coercion. Within this multistep process, there are three specific types of sequential errors made by police interrogators that can lead to false and even detailed confessions: (1) misclassification error, (2) coercion error, and (3) contamination error.

Misclassification Error
First, investigators misclassify the innocent person as guilty. “The path to false confession begins, as it must, when police target an innocent suspect…. Once specific suspects are targeted, police interviews and interrogations are thereafter guided by the presumption of guilt.”

The decision to interrogate is a critical decision point in the investigative process. If police did not erroneously interrogate innocent people, they would never elicit false confessions. Misclassifying innocent suspects is a necessary condition for all false confessions and wrongful convictions, and therefore it is both the first and the most consequential error that police make in the process.

There are many cognitive errors that lead police to incorrectly classify an innocent person as a guilty suspect. The most prominent stems from poor and erroneous investigation training. American police are taught, falsely, that they can become human lie detectors capable of distinguishing truth from deception at high/near perfect rates of accuracy. Detectives are also incorrectly taught that the subject who averts his gaze, slouches, shifts his body posture, touches his nose, adjusts or cleans his glasses, chews his fingernails, or strokes the back of his head is likely to be lying and thus is guilty. The subject who is guarded, uncooperative, and offers broad denials and qualified responses is also taught to be deceptive, and therefore, guilty.

However, social science studies have repeatedly demonstrated across a variety of contexts that people are poor human lie detectors and are highly prone to error in their judgment about whether an individual is lying or telling the truth. Most people are correct at rates that are no better than guessing randomly (i.e. 50/50).

Innocent persons may be also be mistakenly targeted for suspicion and misclassified as guilty suspects based on widespread crime-related schemas. For example, family members have been led to confess falsely to murdering wives, children, or parents, largely because police start with the assumption that most such murders are committed by family and proceed by ruling out family before looking for other suspects.

Coercion Error
Second, investigators subject the innocent person to a guilt-presumptive and accusatory interrogation that inevitability includes lies about evidence. This often involves the repeated use of implicit and explicit promises and threats.

The psychological structure and logic of contemporary interrogation easily facilitates the effects of coercion. The supervisory environment and physical confinement are intended to isolate and disempower the suspect. Interrogation is designed to be stressful and unpleasant, and it is more stressful and unpleasant the more intense it becomes and the longer it lasts. Interrogation techniques are meant to make the suspect believe his guilt has already been established, and that no one will believe his claims of innocence.

During the interrogation, police use techniques that break down a suspect's resistance to admitting guilt. The interrogator may wear down or distress the subject to the point where he believes he has no choice but to confess. The suspect is likely to be fatigued, worn down, or simply sees no other way to escape an intolerably stressful experience. Some suspects come to believe that the only way they will be able to leave is if they do what the detectives say. Others comply because they are led to believe that it is the only way to avoid a feared outcome (ex. rape in prison). When a suspect perceives that he has no choice but to comply, coercion is easily accomplished.

Contamination Error
Finally, once the false admission is elicited, investigators pressure the suspect to provide a jointly-shaped post-admission narrative. Investigators often give the innocent suspect both public and nonpublic facts of the crime. Police often do this by subtly motivating suspects to provide "correct" answers to their questions. The interrogator may try and get the suspect to include motive and explanation, emotions during and after the crime, statements that the confession is voluntary, and general or specific knowledge of the crime in their confession.

In addition, interrogators encourage the suspect to attribute the decision to confess to an act of conscience and urge him to express remorse about committing the crime. They may provide vivid scene details that appear to corroborate the suspect's guilty knowledge and thus confirm his culpability. Interrogators may also try to make the admission appear to be voluntary, portraying the suspect as the agent of his own confession and themselves merely as its passive recipient.

Police detectives understand the importance of the postadmission phase of interrogation. They use it to influence, shape, and oftentimes script the suspect's narrative. The detective's goal is to elicit a persuasive account that successfully incriminates the suspect and leads to his conviction.

Vulnerable Suspects

Additionally, individuals with certain personality traits and dispositions are more easily pressured into giving false confessions. Individuals who are highly suggestible or compliant are more likely to confess falsely. Individuals who are highly suggestible tend to have poor memories, high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, and low assertiveness. Suggestibility also tends to be heightened by sleep deprivation, fatigue, and drug or alcohol withdrawal– which are common things to experience during interrogations. Individuals who are highly compliant also tend to be conflict avoidant, acquiescent, and eager to please others, especially authority figures.

Furthermore, the developmentally disabled or cognitively impaired, juveniles, and the mentally ill are unusually vulnerable to the pressures of police interrogation, and therefore, more likely to falsely confess.

Prevalence of False Confessions

Unfortunately, social science studies have concluded that false confessions are highly prevalent. False confessions are also one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. While a study by Bedau & Radelet (1987) found false confessions to be the third leading cause of wrongful convictions, a more recent study by Warden (2003) found that they were the single leading cause. In addition, the Innocence Project conducted a study which concluded over ? of suspects who were exonerated based on DNA evidence had falsely confessed.

Sources: Bedau, H. A., & Radelet, M. L. (1987). Miscarriages of justice in potentially capital cases. Stanford Law Review, 40, 21-179.; Warden, Robert (2003) The Role of False Confessions in Illinois Wrongful Murder Convictions Since 1970. Center on Wrongful Convictions Research Report.; False Confessions and Recordings of Custodial Interrogations.

Types of False Confessions

There are three main types of false confessions: voluntary, compliant, and internalized. The least common type of confession is voluntary, while internalized confessions are more prevalent, and compliant confessions are most prevalent.

Voluntary confessions occur when a suspect hears about a crime and turns him or herself in. They are often referred to as confessions “occurring in the absence of elicitation”. As mentioned, these types of confessions are extremely rare. They usually only occur when the suspect has a psychological disorder or he/she wishes to get famous from confessing to a very high profile crime. For example, over 200 people confessed to the famous killing of the Lindbergh baby.

Compliant confessions occur when the suspect confesses to a crime he or she knows he/she did not commit. Compliant confessions are further broken down into coerced compliant and stress compliant. Both are made as a result of police pressure and coercion and both are usually recanted at the end of the interrogation. Coerced compliant confessions are made when the suspect feels that confession to the crime is the only way out of the interrogation. This is the most prevalent type of false confession. Stress compliant confessions are made when stress and exhaustion weaken the suspect and he or she succumbs to police pressure. The influence of police tactics on false confessions will be discussed further in the section on what causes false confessions. Internalized false confessions occur when the police convince the suspect that he or she committed the crime, although he/she does not remember doing so. Internalized confessions are also called persuaded-coerced confessions. Similar to compliant confessions, internalized confessions are usually retracted later. An example of an internalized confession occurred in the case of Wes Myers, a Cornell Capital Punishment Clinic client, who was convinced by the police that he killed his girlfriend when he was blacked out drunk, leading him to falsely believe that he did so.

Sources: Kassin, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. (1985). Confession Evidence. In S. M. Kassin & L. Wrightsman (Eds.), The psychology of evidence and trial procedure (pp. 67-94).; Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook.; Montaldo, Charles (2018). Why Do Innocent People Make False Confessions?,; Leo, R. A. (2008). Police interrogation and American justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Jailhouse informants

Jailhouse informants pose particular concerns in the realm of false confession evidence. An in-depth analysis of the role and legal issues surrounding jailhouse informants is discussed on the Jailhouse Informant webpage. However, this page will focus specifically on the role jailhouse informants played in extracting a confession from Curtis Flowers.

Two informants testified in Curtis’ first trial claiming that Curtis had confessed to the quadruple murder. The first was Frederick Veal, who was placed in Curtis’ cell by the State to elicit information. Veal testified at the first trial that one night, while he and Curtis were up late talking, Curtis confessed to the killings. Later, Veal signed an affidavit claiming his testimony against Curtis was a lie. He claimed he was not a credible witness and did not think the jury would believe him, and that he had been induced by the State to testify.

The second informant, Maurice Hawkins, testified to a similar story. He claimed that one night, he and Curtis were playing Solitaire when Curtis blurted out, “I hated that I had to kill my own cousin.” Similar to Beal, Hawkins later signed an affidavit retracting his statement, claiming to have been induced by the State.

The third informant, Odell Hallmon, was the State’s key witness in 4 of Curtis’ trials. Like the others, he testified that Curtis confessed to the crime while the two men were in prison together. Hallmon’s role in the trials was quite peculiar. In the first trial, his sister testified against Curtis. In the second trial, Hallmon claimed that he had forced his sister to lie for him, and that he would testify in Curtis’ defense. In the third trial, Hallmon changed his story yet again, claiming Curtis really did confess to the murder, but bribed Hallmon to testify on his behalf. Hallmon has testified against Curtis in every subsequent trial.

These informants present an interesting case with regard to Curtis Flowers. Based on their subsequent retractions, it is probable that Curtis never made a confession at all. Also, if the statements were made as the informants had originally testified, they would be considered voluntary confessions. As discussed earlier, these types of confessions are extremely rare and usually only occur when the suspect is trying to gain fame from a very high profile case. Finally, without these confessions, the case against Curtis Flowers is substantially weakened. The confessions were a major piece of evidence leading to Curtis’ conviction in the first trial. In fact, the prosecutor stated to the jury in closing arguments that the confessions bring the case from “beyond a reasonable doubt to beyond any doubt.”

Source: In the Dark Season Two, APM Reports.


Social Science studies have provided a number of insights into the problem of false confessions—the psychological reasoning for why innocent people falsely confess, the motivation for third party informants to fabricate stories of confessions, and the sway such confessions have over juries during trials. Such insight is invaluable, as it informs social scientists and legal professionals alike on the issue at hand. Empirical evidence on the problem itself is surely beneficial, but studies also illustrate many possible remedies that may be used to address the plight of false confessions. Those studies offer suggestions to combat the use of false Defendant confessions and false jailhouse informant confessions.

            False Defendant confessions are those that come directly from suspects and are used as evidence against them at trial. Much of the time, these confessions are garnered by police. An overarching problem is the very nature of police interrogation—the manner in which police question suspects propagates the issue of not obtaining truthful confessions. This leads to a larger issue, what Professors Cassell, Leo, and Ofshe call the “lost confession” in their study. The lost confession consists of those confessions by the actual perpetrator of the crime that are never actually gotten by law enforcement. These lost confessions would close cases that otherwise remain open and allow for other innocent suspects to be investigated, and in the worst scenarios, convicted. Much of the time, the lost confession is all that might exonerate an wrongfully convicted person.  
Finding reliable statistics on the police induced confessions presents social scientists with much difficulty, as there is concern that no one knows how many individuals have been wrongly convicted as a result of false confessions. The study on protecting the innocent from false confessions and lost confessions-and from Miranda—approximates that between 1 in every 2,400 and 1 in every 90,000 convictions are a result of a false confession. The large range of the approximation is due in part to the nature of false confession studies—much of it is based on anecdotal evidence, stories of innocent men and women who have later been exonerated.

            The study goes on to point out several possible ways of solving the false confession issue: 1) modifying the Miranda rule, 2) forbidding police from misrepresenting the strength of their evidence against a suspect, and 3) tailoring investigative techniques to the specific suspect—particularly when the suspect is a member of a group particularly vulnerable to giving false confessions. The Authors convey a theory of the Miranda rule that is in stark contrast with its purpose—instead of aiding the innocent in due process, it places them at a disadvantage. Based on empirical analysis, those who are most likely to waive their Miranda rights are not hardened career criminals, but rather those who trust police, and believe they have nothing to hide, or feel pressured to talk to law enforcement anyway. Cassell suggests that both the need to waive one’s rights and the cutoff rule that demands an interrogation cease after a request for a lawyer has been made should be gotten rid of in favor of videotaping all interrogations in order to detect any coercion or feeding of information to suspects for them to use in fabricated confessions. Additionally, when the suspect is a juvenile or mentally deficient individual, members of two particularly vulnerable groups, law enforcement should tailor their interrogation to the individual so as not to knowingly pressure them into offering a false confession.

            Jailhouse informant confessions are as much a problem as Defendant false confessions, if not more. False confessions are particularly persuasive to juries, even when they know that the informant is being compensated for his testimony. In a study on the effects of accomplice witnesses and jailhouse informants on jury decision making, mock jurors voted guilty far more often when there was a confession than where there was not, and the knowledge that an informant was being compensated had no bearing on their decision. To address this, social science studies suggest a number of recommendations: 1) pre-trial reliability hearings to validate an informant’s testimony before it is submitted to a jury, 2) enhanced disclosure obligations to give Defense counsel more time and access to the informant’s testimony beforehand, 3) corroboration requirements that demand an informant’s testimony be corroborated by other evidence in order to be admissible, 4) jury instructions regarding the testimony, 5) reclassifying jailhouse informant confessions as circumstantial rather than direct evidence so the jury must decide in the Defendant’s favor on the merits if his story is plausible, rather than the strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, and 5) total abolition of jailhouse informant confessions.

            The recommendations above, whether in combination or alone, suggest that the widespread problem of false confessions from Defendants and Jailhouse informants can be addressed, and with the correct degree of intervention, false confessions that lead to the incarceration of innocent persons can be remedied.

Sources: Cassell, Paul. (1998). Criminal Law: Protecting the innocent from false confessions and lost confessions—and from miranda, 88 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 497-556. Covey, Russell. (2014). Abolishing Jailhouse Snitch Testimony, 49 Wake Forest L. Rev. 1375. Hammarskjold, Carl. (2011). Symposium: American War Crimes: Comment: Smokes, candy, and the Bloody sword: How classifying Jailhouse Snitch Testimony as Direct, rather than Circumstantial, Evidence contributes to Wrongful Convictions, 45 U.S.F.L. Rev. 1103. Jeffrey S. Neuschatz et. al. (2008). The Effects of Accomplice Witnesses and Jailhouse Informants on Jury Decision Making, 32 Law & Hum. Behav. 132.