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- In Watchmen, Night Owl and Silk Specter discuss a "supervillain" who would compulsively confess to all sorts of crimes because he wanted to be beaten up by a superhero.
"He pulled it on Rorschach, and Rorschach dropped him down an elevator shaft."
- From Hell, apart from the dozens of letters from "Jack" (with different handwritings), the appendix accounts a few false confessions.
- The reason that Eddie Brock (Venom) hated Spider-Man was because after Eddie broke journalistic ethics to apprehend someone who had confessed to being the serial killer Sin Eater, Spider-Man caught the real Sin Eater, revealing Brock's catch to be a false confessor.
- Sin City has two rather tragic examples. Both John Hartigan and Marv are framed for crimes they didn't commit but in both cases, they confess to the charges to protect loved ones.
- In Bedlam, Fillmore Press is a former psychotic killer who turned to solving grisly murders using his unique understanding of the criminally insane mind. To this end, he confesses to a string of serial killings because a) he feels the police won't listen to him unless they absolutely have to, and b) he thinks the real killer is just getting warmed up and has to be stopped as soon as possible. He helps along the investigation quite a bit, but the detectives working the case think he really is the killer and refuse to let him go when he recants his confession.
- In the 1931 film M, several people confess to being the serial killer, mostly for the publicity.
- In White Heat, Cody confesses to a minor a robbery in Illinois he didn't commit in order to provide an alibi for a murder he did commit in California.
- In Citizen X, a mentally disabled man leads the police on a wild goose chase after they get him to "confess" that he was the killer. The police pretty much know the man isn't guilty, but the political leadership want a scapegoat, even after more bodies pile up.
- In Turk 182, a whole crowd of people show up to confess that they are the titular graffiti artist, including Jimmy Lynch (who really is Turk 182). It is, in fact, Jimmy's disgust and derision at the false confessors that convinces a TV reporter that he is, in fact, actually Turk.
- From David Fincher's Zodiac:
"I'm the Zodiac Killer.""Okay, so how did you kill your victims?""With a gun... no, wait — a hammer!"
- In Election, Tammy covers up for Tracy by lying and saying that she tore down Paul's campaign posters.
- In So I Married an Axe Murderer, a person gives a confession for the "Mrs. X" murders, giving Charles the peace of mind to go through with his wedding to who he suspected was "Mrs. X". It turns out it was a false confession given by a mentally ill person, who also confessed to murdering Abraham Lincoln.
- The Exorcist III has a mention of when a serial killer was on the loose, and the police wanted to weed out false confessions. So they released a false detail of the crimes, and everyone who confessed gave that false detail.
- In Rashomon, the wife of the deceased insists that she murdered him, while his ghost claims seppuku. Apparently, the reality (she told her rapist to fight her husband so she could leave the marriage, and the husband was a wimp in battle) is more embarrassing for both of them.
- Just Cause: Blair Sullivan claims credits for the rape and brutal murder of a young girl, in exchange for the real killer, Bobby Ferguson, killing his parents.
- A mentally unstable grocery boy in The Naked City confesses to have killed Jean Dexter, but detective Muldoon convicts him of lying by asking details of the murder which the boy answers wrong.
- Sort-of done in My Cousin Vinny in a good example of why it's always a good idea to get a lawyer, even if you're innocent. After the boys are arrested, they assume it's because they accidentally shoplifted a can of tuna. In fact, they're suspected of murdering the store clerk (it was a completely different pair of guys that happened to do it mere minutes after they leave and who happened to have a similar car color). One of them starts explaining the shoplifting, causing the sheriff to ask if that's why they shot the clerk. Cue the kid's confused half-question-half-statement "I shot the clerk?" which he repeats several times, trying to wrap his head around the idea. The sheriff takes it as a confession and later testifies to that effect in court. Notably, the kid doesn't sign a written confession, but his utterance is treated as one. The sheriff later admits he misinterpreted it after the real killers turn up in another state, though.
- "Done It" Duncan, who will confess to anything and everything (up to and including stealing fire from the gods). Can actually be a good source of information: if he says "It wasn't Bob who did that burglary, it was me", you can be pretty much sure that is was Bob who did it.
- In Feet of Clay, a golem turns itself in and confesses to a murder. Colon is ecstatic when the golem also confesses to every unsolved crime in the city. Carrot demonstrates the problem with this by getting confessions to things that never happened.
- Dorothy L. Sayers' Montague Egg story, "Murder at Pentecost".
- In Purple Hibiscus, Jaja gives one of these to protect his mother, who has just killed her abusive husband.
- The publicity version is parodied in The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul, when a Heathrow check-in desk blows up:
The usual people tried to claim responsibility. First the IRA, then the PLO and the Gas Board. Even British Nuclear Fuels rushed out a statement to the effect that the situation was completely under control, that it was a one in a million chance, that there was hardly any radioactive leakage at all and that the site of the explosion would make a nice location for a day out with the kids and a picnic, before finally having to admit that it wasn't actually anything to do with them at all.
- In A Storm of Swords, Tyrion Lannister responds with an angry and contemptuous "Your son was a monster. Of course, I did it" when asked by his brother Jaime if he (Tyrion) poisoned Joffrey (Tyrion's nephew and Jaime's incestuously born son). Tyrion actually had nothing to do with the murder other than being the one who unwittingly gave Joffrey the poisoned wine. He was confessing in order to cause Jaime maximum pain, as Jaime had just admitted that Tyrion's first wife, Tysha, hadn't been the hired whore Tyrion had been told she was.
- In The Confession, Donté Drumm eventually records a confession of having committed Nicole Yarber's murder. But this occurs after having been bullied by the cops for 15 hours straight and broken. Donté is innocent.
- Towards Zero opens with Superintendent Battle's daughter getting into trouble after she confesses to stealing. When the Superintendent sees her, he realises that she didn't commit the crime, but was pressured to confess when her headmistress publicly insinuated that she was guilty.
Live Action TV
- On Dexter, Neil Perry confessed to being the Ice Truck Killer because he wanted to be someone important.
- Game of Thrones:
- Ned Stark makes one to save his daughter Sansa.
- Tyrion subverts this twice by claiming he wishes to confess, only to launch into a "The Reason You Suck" Speech against his accusers.
- In The Unusuals, a character is established in the backstory as a serial confessor. It turns out that he would falsely confess to crimes so that he could get inside the police station, where he was involved in a scheme to steal evidence.
- Law & Order had several of these.
- Criminal Minds featured this at least once.
- Barney Miller had a background character who compulsively confessed to all sorts of crimes. No one ever believed him.
- Subverted on an episode where a woman repeatedly comes into the police station to confess to "crimes" such as murdering her roommate's gerbil. It turns out she was searching each of the interrogation rooms in turn trying to find a diamond that had been hidden under one of the tables.
- Another episode has Monk investigating the murder of an immigrant cab driver and start dating a woman of the same nationality. After a crucial piece of evidence is uncovered, the woman confesses, but Monk is not entirely convinced she did it. It turns out she was covering for her mother, who recognized the cab driver as a war criminal and killed him for his crimes. The judicial system is sympathetic enough to grant the woman a reduced sentence, but just getting her arrested is enough for the daughter to break up with Monk.
- This is a major part in the Lily Kane murder mystery in the first season of Veronica Mars: Disgruntled former Kane Software employee Abel Koontz confesses to the murder of Lily Kane, but in reality the Kanes agreed to pay for his daughter's future so that he would take the fall (he's dying from a disease, so he doesn't particularly care what happens to him), because they believe that their son Duncan killed Lily in an epileptic fit. Because of his confession, Sheriff Lamb ends the investigation, saying they found the killer, causing Veronica and her disgraced-Sheriff-now-PI father to investigate it themselves.
- A man in the CSI episode "The Descent of Man" confesses to the murder of his spiritual guru because one of their tenets is being extremely agreeable.
- A CSI: New York episode featured the case of a man walking into a police station confessing to have murdered a doctor, carrying the revolver used to kill her as proof and gunshot residue on his clothes. Turns out it was his wife that killed her. The man has a terminal illness and the couple was swindled by the doctor into spending all their money in a non-working treatment, causing the wife to kill her in a rage, leading the guy to discharge the gun someplace else to incriminate himself. The episode ends with the man pleading to Stella that she arrest him instead seeing as he is about to die anyway, only for her to tell him she can't.
- An episode of The Thin Blue Line had a guy being arrested after confessing to the crime the team was investigating. When he is interrogated, he confesses to the crime...along with several others...and starting WWII...
- One episode of Columbo ended with a friend of the killer confessing. As the killer is dying of a brain tumor (and in fact, as a result of the tumor doesn't even remember that she's the killer), Columbo, who knows the truth and that the victim deserved it, gently points out that in the hands of a good defense attorney the evidence will show that the friend didn't do it. The man agrees, but says it will probably take a good six months of so before he'll go to trial, by which time the woman will be dead.
- New Tricks had a man come in and confess to the killings of numerous dogs. The man has been the prime suspect in that crime for years and is also confessing to a string of new dog killings. However, by that time the detectives have determined that hew did not do it and easily trick him into confessing to parts of the crime that did not happen. He wants publicity for his anti-animal views.
- Life On Mars had several of these, including the factory worker confessing to what was revealed to be an accidental death.
- One episode of CHiPs had a man who would confess to recent crimes to the point of annoyance, only to be proven innocent and turned away. It turns out to be an elaborate plot to be turned away from confessing to a crime he does commit. Unfortunately for him, Ponch is present at the crime he does commit and confirms his confession.
- Night Court had an elderly woman come in and confess to the murder of her husband. It turns out he was very sick and suicided, and she didn't want him to be remembered as giving up. She's caught out when her story doesn't line up with what the detectives find at her home.
- On Castle, a woman confesses to killing a man in a hotel room. She knows details of the crime that only the killer would know but does not know why she did it. The detectives cannot find any connection between her and the victim and then find out that she was somewhere else when the crime occurred and that there are witnesses who will confirm that. Then a man comes in and confesses to the same crime. He tells pretty much the same story and the detectives discover that he also could not have done the crime. When a third person comes in to confess to the murder, the detectives don't even bother to interrogate him properly since they know by then that the memories are false. The murder victim was an actor who starred in videos used in an experimental treatment method. The people who confessed were test subjects, and as part of the treatment they were made to play out a scene where they confront the source of their problems (as represented by the actor) and kill it. When the subjects started showing disturbing side effects, the researchers drugged them and induced Easy Amnesia in order to cover up what happened. The killer knew what happened to them and deliberately staged the murder to look exactly as the fake murder in their memories.
- In one episode of The Closer, a man confessed to murdering a young girl. It was later discovered that the actual culprit was his 17-year old son, and he only "confessed" so he can distract the police while the son escaped to Mexico.
- When Detectives Bolander, Felton, and Howard are shot on Homicide: Life on the Street, the detectives investigating convince one suspect that he'll do better in prison as an attempted Cop Killer than as the child-killing pedophile he happens to be. Unfortunately, his attempt at confessing reveals that he's completely ignorant of how the shooting went down.
- Death in Paradise:
- One episode has a confession by someone that he killed the victim of the week in a drunken stupor and then when he woke up properly he disposed of the body, cleaned up, and went to get drunk. The part about disposing of the body and cleaning up the crime scene was true, but he didn't kill the victim. He only thought he had, because when you wake up in a chair after drinking heavily, with a bloody knife in your hand and someone you hate lying dead on the floor, it's a reasonable assumption to make. The real murderer had arranged it with the intent of using a false alibi to narrow the murder down to happen within a very limited period of time and then getting to the scene with a witness... but unfortunately the person to be framed had woken up from his induced alcoholic stupor before the limited time-frame was to start, and had been seen drinking at a bar at the supposed time of the murder, a fair distance from the scene of the murder.
- Another episode had someone confess to having shot and killed the victim of the week, with it quickly being established that the victim was already dead at the time of the shooting. He did shoot the victim, but he was perfectly aware she was dead. The entire point was to establish an attempted murder to confess to to eliminate himself as a suspect for his earlier (impulsive) actual murder.
- House had a pillar-of-the-community Patient of the Week who confessed a series of petty personal crimes to the well-wishers who gathered, and accused himself of ever-worse activities, like sleeping with a teenager or murdering his business partner. The team learn the partner committed suicide and manage to show the wife that he's making a lot of it up (Chase casually mentions he can't find his spare shoes, and the guy confesses immediately). It turns out that he did sleep with the teenager, though they don't tell her.
- An early episode of Murder, She Wrote does this. A woman confesses to shooting her father before he feel overboard while at sea. Later, when his body washes ashore with two gunshot wounds to his chest she claims to have fabricated the story as part of a plan to help her father fake his death. The established time of death and the mismatch of the bullets in his body with her gun seems to support her claim, as does Jessica having met the man after he had been "lost" at sea. In a twist, the daughter actually had murdered her father, and was hoping that her easily disproved false confession would create the impression that she was being framed and eliminate her as a suspect.
- Another episode has a man confess to stabbing the victim with a screwdriver, but Jessica quickly determines that the victim was already dead at the time, making the man guilty only of attempted murder. Later, however, she deduces that the confessor actually knew that the victim was already dead at the time because he had strangled him earlier, and committed and confessed to the "stabbing" murder, knowing that a coroner would figure it out, to throw off suspicion.
- Games Magazine once ran a puzzle called Untrue Confessions, where Dr. Fred Shrynker, who worked at an insane asylum, was murdered by one of his patients — however, he headed the ward for Persons Suffering from the Delusion that They Are Murderers — and eight patients have confessed. Your task was to study the scene of the crime and then determine which of the following confessions isn't false:
- The patient whose only intelligible motive of the three she gives is that he was a Yankees fan,
- ...the patient who claimed that Shrynker was a disloyal US President who needed to be stopped,
- ...the patient who thought he was in love with her and says she killed him when she saw him reading a letter from his wife,
- ...the patient who thinks he's an alien spy and says he killed Shrynker for jamming his transmission to the homeworld,
- ...the patient whose mathematical motive is insufficiently explained to be understood,
- ...the patient who thinks he is the doctor and that Shrynker was a hopeless case he Mercy Killed,
- ...the Super OCD neat freak who says she killed Shrynker for one disorganization too many,
- ...or the patient who thinks he has an invisibility cloak that Shrynker was jealous of.
- The culprit is the one who thinks he's a space alien.
- Ace Attorney:
- In Trials and Tribulations, Ron DeLite, a meek and timid guy, confessed being the Gentleman Thief Mask☆DeMasque the day after his last heist, even though he didn't have the object stolen, and when Phoenix goes to visit his wife she tells him that Ron is deluded and thinks he is DeMasque. Turns out DeLite is Mask☆DeMasque, but didn't commit the crime in question. He confessed to have an alibi because at the time of the theft there was a murder in which he was implicated, but which he didn't commit either, and the one who did commit the murder had the same idea and had Phoenix find him as Mask☆DeMasque in court.
- Also in Ace Attorney, there's Lana Skye who confessed to stabbing a detective to death. She was arrested and put on a rather lengthy (by AA standards anyway) and complicated trial before it was eventually revealed that she was covering up for the chief of police, the real murderer, who for the last two years since the SL-9 Incident, had been using Lana as his puppet. In reality, Lana DID stab the victim, however, she did so after said victim was already dead in order to fabricate a false murder weapon to throw suspicion away from the chief. She was caught in this act by a witness, making it seem like she was stabbing the victim to death. Although this is more a case of Lana having to cover for the real killer rather then wanting to. As Phoenix says: "Protecting? No. I think 'afraid of' is more like it."
- Happens in the flashback segments of Case 3 in Ace Attorney Investigations 2. After Jeff Master is accused in the murder of Isaac Dover he's subjected to an interrogation so intense it turns his afro pure white after just one day. To his credit, it takes nearly a year of this treatment to get him to give his False Confession.
- Done in Dual Destinies as well, but this time it's not just one false confession, but three of them, back-to-back. One of which is from Juniper Woods, the defendant, and the other two are from the two witnesses in the trial (as well as friends of the defendant), Hugh O'Connor and Robin Newman. It turns out that All three confessions are in fact false, and occurred one after the other in a domino effect. Robin "confessed" to save Juniper from getting convicted, causing Juniper to "confess" so her friends can't take the rap for her any-more, which in turn causes Hugh to "confess" to nullify Juniper's confession. Hugh's confession is also partly out of self-protection too: Since Robin and Juniper's confessions were rather obviously out of protection for one another rather then due to their actual guilt, Hugh, the only other suspect at the time, would have seemed pretty guilty if he stayed quiet. In other words he actually confessed to make himself NOT look like the culprit.
- During the fifth case of Dual Destinies, it's revealed that Simon Blackquill did this during the UR-1 incident to try to keep the blame off of Athena, who would have been the prime suspect otherwise due to what he himself and Ponco had witnessed. Athena became a lawyer in the first place because she and Simon's sister (and a few others, like Edgeworth) were the only ones who believed that he was truly innocent.
- The first case of Super Dangan Ronpa 2 involves one motivated by the confessor trying to protect the true criminal... though it turns out to be far more complicated than that. Mainly, the one claiming to be responsible is involved, because they were plotting their own murder attempt that the other was trying to foil. By killing them first. They just missed the mark and hit the wrong target.
- A variation is used in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Party of One": Pinkie Pie, suspecting her friends are hiding something from her, forces Spike to tell her exactly what she wants to hear: that they're avoiding her because they don't want to be friends anymore. In this case, it's obvious that isn't really the case, and a stressed-out Spike is just parroting back her own words to make her stop pressuring him.
- Happens in South Park when Mr. Mackey is investigating which of the boys crapped in the urinal, and thinks it's over when Clyde confesses. Then Clyde's parents arrive and inform him that he had a colostomy.
- In The Simpsons' "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" 2-parter, Smithers remembers stumbling drunkenly around town and shooting at someone the night of the crime. While in custody, he's exonerated by evidence that he was at home when Mr. Burns was shot. Smithers did shoot Jasper - but it was in his wooden leg.
- In one Scooby-Doo episode, a bunch of toys come to life in a warehouse and nearly kill several employees. A rising star toymaker admits responsibility, and is taken into custody, but it's later revealed to be a false confession. He confessed to the crime to cement his status as the greatest toymaker in the world.
- A man named Robert Hubert confessed to starting the Great Fire of London in 1666 by throwing a fire bomb through a bakery window. It was shown during his trial that he was out of the country until two days after the start of the fire, that he was never near the bakery in question in any case, the bakery had no windows, and that Hubert himself was a cripple who was physically incapable of throwing a bomb. Despite all this, Hubert was found guilty and hanged for the crime.
- Over a hundred people confessed to the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping in 1932.
- And over five hundred confessed to committing the Black Dahlia murder in 1947.
- Especially in high profile cases like these, it's now fairly common practice for police not to release a key detail about the crime scene or victim, so they can easily tell that a confession is false if the confessor doesn't know that detail.
- John Mark Karr confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey. Not only did he not do it, he had a record for being a serial confessor.
- It's not just the whackjobs confessing: it's well documented that police can get false confessions out of people they honestly believe to be suspects by wearing them down in interrogations and/or scaring them. Despite all the times this happens, some juries, police and prosecutors still claim that innocent people wouldn't do this and express disbelief at the idea.
- It has been shown that even if the jury knows a confession is false they are more likely to convict a person who gave a false confession, than one who did not, with the same evidence.
- It's also been demonstrated that some interrogation tactics (such as repeatedly having the suspect go over how they would have committed the crime if they did it) can if applied with sufficient energy leave an originally rational suspect believing they really did commit the crime. Which doesn't help said suspect during a trial at all, of course.
- Another tactic is "tainting the suspect". The suspect is "accidentally" brought into a room where a bunch of evidence is on display and left there for a few minutes before taken into the interrogation room. When the suspect is then finally brow-beaten into confessing he can mention the key detail mentioned above as "proof" he is the real thing. It's also common to feed the suspect crucial information during the interrogation that they can repeat back as if it were their own. Thankfully interrogations are often recorded now and this can be shown.
- Lee Strobel, during his job as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, once recalled an unusual case where a man pleaded guilty to shooting the host of a party. It was later found that the host had shot himself by accident, and the man "confessing" had done so because he found that his time being spent in jail while awaiting his trial counted as part of his sentence. If he was found guilty, he would get to go home anyway in three days. If he pleaded not guilty, but was found guilty, then his sentence could have been massively increased.
- Sadly common in totalitarian regimes. An old Soviet joke runs like this: The CIA, the KGB and the GIGN have an argument about who is best at catching fugitives. Tired of their bickering, the Secretary-General of the United Nations sets them a task-each is given a ten square miles of forest, in which there is a white rabbit, which they must catch. Their respective efforts go like this:
CIA: The CIA bugged the entire forest, used satellite imagery, set up a network of informants among the woodland creatures, and interviewed all plant and mineral witnesses. After six months with no leads, they concluded that the rabbit does not exist.
GIGN: The GIGN, after a month with no leads, burned down the forest, killing everything in it. They argue that the rabbit had it coming.
KGB: Four KGB agents walk into the forest. Ten minutes later, they emerged with a badly tortured squirrel, which is yelling "Okay, I'm a rabbit, I'm a rabbit!"
- A visit to The Innocence Project is well worth your time. They have an entire category, linked above, for cases where false confessions were given.
- Many false claims of responsibility by a wide range of groups pop up whenever a terrorist incident takes place, moreso if the incident itself doesn't have an immediate clear-cut perpetrator (i.e., a package left behind with a bomb in it). Here, it's generally because the nominal repugnance of whatever just happened (at least to those making such claims) is less important than getting one's particular group's name out into the public consciousness.
- A Swedish man named Sture Bergwall (or more famously in the media, Thomas Quick) once confessed to having committed over thirty murders while incarcerated at Säter mental hospital. He would later on get convicted for eight of the murders solely on the basis of his own confessions while undergoing recovered-memory therapy. Many years later, he confessed having made it all up, partly because he did not want to leave the hospital, partly because he wanted to please his doctors and get their friendship by being an interesting patient and partly because he was "rewarded" with strong medications when he confessed. Journalists later found out that the prosecution, the police, Bergwall's doctors and even the original defense attorney had systematically withheld information from the courts showing that he lacked any detailed knowledge about the murders he confessed. The Swedish legal system ended up granting him re-trials and ultimately acquitting him on all charges, even if the prosecutor and some of the people originally involved in his case still insists on his guilt.
- Bruno Ludke confessed to killing over fifty women in World War II Germany, but may not have committed any of the murders.
- Henry Lee Lucas confessed to murdering over 3,000 people in the southern United States with his partner in crime Otis Toole. While it is agreed he did murder one couple, Lucas began confessing to many other murders as well (likely for better treatment, as he had been roughed up by other inmates in jail). Police began giving him more cold case files of murders, which he duly confessed to, but without showing any verifiable knowledge. In some, it was shown he was many miles away at the time, or had rock-solid alibis. Aside from this, his murder spree would have required going across thousands of miles in one month. Though convicted of 157 murders on the basis of his confessions, all but 11 would later be overturned. His death sentence for the murder of one unidentified woman was commuted (notably by George W. Bush, one of the only times he did this) and Lucas died in prison. Some investigators believe that he might have killed around 40 people along with Toole. As the latter had offered statements to corroborate Lucas's, doubt has been raised over Toole's guilt in many murders also. One murder he confessed to was that of 6-year old Adam Walsh, which inspired his father to create America's Most Wanted, but later recanted. The case was closed in 2008 with the authorities officially stating they believed Toole did it. Nonetheless, this shows the danger of false confessions, as hundreds of cases have been closed even though Lucas and Toole are likely not the real perpetrators, who are no longer even being sought.