Amanda Knox: Why Do Innocent Women Confess to Crimes They Didn’t Commit?
Very little is known about how different genders experience criminal investigations differently—but is it time for this to change?
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
"What we think in this situation," said the first detective, "the other babies are screaming, crying, whatever. You're taking care of them by yourself. You have Ben in your hands, he starts acting up and, you get mad at him and you throw him on the floor."
"You threw him on the floor?" asked the second detective.
Transfixed by her accusers, Melissa Calusinski nodded. "Yeah."
On January 14, 2009, 16-month-old Benjamin Kingan was discovered unresponsive in his bouncy chair at the Illinois daycare where 22-year-old Calusinski worked. Initial examination showed he had suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Two days later, detectives George Filenko and Sean Curran walked out of a nine-hour interrogation at the Lake Zurich police department with a detailed videotaped confession. Calusinski first denied knowledge of how Kingan could have sustained his injuries, but eventually admitted, under sustained questioning, that Kingan had a habit of flinging himself backwards and hitting his head on the floor. Eventually, Calusinski confessed to throwing Kingan violently to the ground.
Footage of Calusinski, alone in a police squad car, shows her recanting her confession. "No," she mutters, sitting forward in the back seat, wrists handcuffed behind her back. "Innocent." Despite this, her confession helped secure her conviction for Kingan's murder in November 2011. Calusinski continues to profess her innocence from prison, though her requests for a new trial have been denied.
"Melissa's arrest, prosecution, and conviction relied exclusively upon her false confession," Kathleen Zellner, Calusinski's post-conviction attorney, explains over email. Zellner highlights how physical evidence from the scene contradicts the confession. Kingan's autopsy showed no skull fracture, abrasions, or bruising: all of which you would expect to see on a small child thrown violently thrown against a tile floor.
In February 2016, when asked by CBS correspondent Brad Edwards why she confessed, Calusinski struggled to explain: "The only way for me to get out of there was basically what they wanted." Reams have been written about why she confessed to a crime many believe her to be innocent of—was she subject to questionable interrogation tactics? Did her low IQ play a part? (Neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Hanlon testified in court that Calusinski tested as "highly suggestible", with a very low verbal IQ—something proven to increase an individual's likelihood to confess to a crime they didn't commit.)
Women are raised under a different social incentive structure than men.
What hasn't been discussed is whether Calusinski's gender had anything to do with it. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, women represent 11 percent of exonerees involving a false confession compared to nine percent of exonerations overall. This may suggest that women are slightly more likely to be convicted of a crime they did not commit based on a false confession.
We are all of us social animals, conditioned to please and comply with authority figures—such as police officers. But compliance and suggestibility aren't hardwired traits: We're taught them. "Men hold higher status in society, so have more power," Alice H. Eagly, a psychology and gender studies professor at Northwestern University, tells me. "Women are commonly in roles that involve caring and cooperation. Expectations are formed for men to be more influential and women more easily influenced."
Women are raised under a different social incentive structure than men, where attitudes of compliance and deference to authority are more encouraged. This finds its most damning realization in the interrogation room, a situation designed to amplify the absolute control and authority of investigators—an experience I know only too well.
One 2011 paper from the University of Bristol, based on interviews with 50 incarcerated British women, found that women are more vulnerable to coercion and threats to family responsibilities—making it more likely they'll falsely confess. Aside from this, little research exists exploring whether women are more likely to admit to crimes they didn't commit.
Professor Saul Kassin, a leading false confessions researcher, explains why scant evidence exists in this area. "The vast majority of suspects for violent crimes are men. Often we do analyze for gender and nothing comes of it―at least not in our laboratory experiments." Quite simply, the proportion of women committing violent crimes is too low to allow for statistical modelling.
I ask Kassin if there are dispositional characteristics that render certain people susceptible to coercive interrogation tactics. "There are two personality traits that can dispositionally increase a person's vulnerability: high levels of compliance, and scoring high on measures of suggestibility―which increases a person's susceptibility to misinformation and false memories."
And women are also more likely to be the victims of false memory syndrome—that is, believe something to be true that did not actually happen to them—than men. Ninety-two percent of those affected with false memories are female, and they're usually implanted with false memories as a result of suggestive psychotherapy (though, as women are more likely to seek treatment for mental disorders, this can skew the results.)
Women are particularly vulnerable in cases involving the death of a child.
"Women go into therapy for depression and eating disorders," explains Elizabeth F. Loftus, a false memory expert at the University of California, Irvine, "and come out of it thinking they were raped as a child." Loftus' research advocates against repressed-memory therapy, where therapists seek to treat their patients' symptoms of psychosis by encouraging them to "remember" repressed traumatic experiences, but in fact implant false memories, often of childhood sexual abuse. She tells me that in her laboratory experiments, she's able to implant entirely false memories into "an average of 30 percent of normal, healthy people (of both genders.)"
If Loftus is able to implant false memories in 30 percent of the normal population, women such as Calusinski—socially compliant, and with a low IQ—stand little chance in the face of aggressive police techniques.
Women are also far more likely to be convicted of crimes that never occurred―that is, accidents or misfortunes mistaken for crimes, like suicides judged to be homicides. That's the case for 66.6 percent of female exonerations; it's 28.7 percent for men, according to my own calculations based on the National Registry of Exonerations.
Like Kristin Bunch, wrongfully convicted in 1996 of killing her three-year-old son by setting fire to her home, only to be exonerated 17 years later when previously undisclosed evidence indicated that the fire was accidental. Or Sabrina Butler, wrongfully convicted in 1990 of killing her nine-month-old son by crushing him, only to be exonerated after five years on death row when it was found that her son actually died from a hereditary kidney condition. More recently, Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Anna Vasquez (the so-called San Antonio Four) were finally exonerated in November, after being wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing Ramirez's two nieces based on the children's coerced testimony.
Women are particularly vulnerable in cases involving the death of a child. "A noticeable difference in women's cases is that, when a child is hurt or dies under mysterious circumstances, the caregiver (mother or babysitter) is usually blamed," argues Judith Royal, the co-director of the Women's Project at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. And women's desire to be solicitous and assist the police in their investigations can have tragic consequences, as Royal explains to me. "The mother or caregiver would be very motivated to cooperate with the police to try to figure out what happened and might not be aware that they are being targeted as the cause of the death and should have an attorney."
Crimes committed against defenseless, innocent children are viewed by our society as the most heinous of all. We put special pressure on law enforcement to bring to light the circumstances surrounding the unexpected and mysterious death of a child. As Assistant State's Attorney in the Calusinski case, Matt DeMartini, said: "There's no victim more innocent than a toddler. A toddler is free of sin."
This motivation to cooperate, without legal assistance, is exactly the kind of mentality that renders people susceptible to coercion, and unshackles agenda-driven interrogators to implement their most powerful persuasion tactics, outlined in this 2005 study. Investigators may isolate and "manipulate a suspect into thinking that it is in his or her best interest to confess." They combine positive and negative incentives to "increase the anxiety and despair associated with denial and reduce the anxiety associated with confession." It's a perfect storm that disproportionately affects women where crimes are imagined when they don't actually exist.
"When a woman is accused of child abuse or murder after the death of a child she is judged both societally and legally through stereotyped ideals of womanhood and motherhood," writes Andrea Lewis, of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, in the Albany Law Review. "When no explanation can be found she faces both our cultural predisposition to find the woman responsible and our historical need to believe babies do not just die." After all, what is less womanly and more monstrous than a woman failing to live up to her reproductive role as caretaker?
Investigators look for criminal intent. When in doubt, they can erroneously assume it, and subsequently use all their authority and means of influence to solicit confirmation. A vulnerable and mentally-challenged woman like Melissa Calusinski stood little chance against dedicated investigators. As her defense-appointed neuropsychologist Dr. Robert Hanlon testified at Calusinski's trial, "[she] demonstrated a degree of vulnerability to suggestion both to leading questions and then to feedback regarding the inaccuracy of her responding."
We imagine criminal intent where it doesn't exist.
During the interrogation, every time Calusinski professed her innocence, Detectives Curran and Filenko came back with variations of, "We know you were there," "These stories are not helping you," and "It's mathematically and physically impossible for [Ben] to have sustained those injuries based on [your] story." In the interrogation room, they theorized that Ben Kingan died at the hands of his caretaker rather than at the hands of natural misfortune, and as a result, Calusinski made a confession that many legal observers believe to be false.
Throughout history, our ideas about justice have repeatedly failed women in this same, special way. We imagine criminal intent where it doesn't exist. The Salem Witch trials of the late 1600s tended to target middle-aged women who rebelled against strict social and spiritual standards, finding them responsible for anything from miscarriages to spoiled milk. More recently, Hillary Clinton was judged guilty by association of her husband's sexual indiscretions, and even though investigations into Benghazi and her private email server found no wrongdoing worth criminal prosecution, mantras of "Lock her up!" prevailed.
If you believe—as many do—that Melissa Calusinski is innocent, then her case raises important questions about how our criminal justice system treats vulnerable women, and whether gender should be a factor in prosecutorial interrogation strategies. For now, there is no standard understanding of the role that gender plays in condemning the innocent to the punishments of the guilty. As a result of that lack of consideration, women continue to suffer.
Until we look at the whole picture and understand the complex psychology of the interrogation room, many more women will confess to crimes that they did not commit.