How does the legal system treat confessions brought out by police interrogations? The process is straightforward. Whenever a sus- pect confesses but then recants the statement, pleads not guilty, and goes to trial, the judge must deter- mine whether the statement was voluntary or coerced. If the confes- sion was clearly coerced—as when a suspect is isolated for long periods of time, deprived of food or sleep, threatened, or abused—it is excluded. If the confession is not coerced, it is admitted into evidence for the jury to evaluate.
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In these cases, juries are confronted with a classic attribution dilemma: A suspect’s statement may indicate guilt (personal attribution), or it may simply provide the suspect with a way to avoid the unpleasant consequences of silence (situational attribution). According to attribution theory, jurors should reject all confessions made in response to external pressure. But wait. Remember the fun- damental attribution error? People tend to over-attribute behavior to persons and overlook the influence of situational forces. Is it similarly possible, as in the Central Park jogger cases, that jurors view suspects who confess as guilty even if their confessions were coerced during interrogation?