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.
Women are raised under a different social incentive structure than men.
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."
"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.)"
Women are particularly vulnerable in cases involving the death of a child.
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.
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."
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.
We imagine criminal intent where it doesn't exist.