Coughlin Finds Police Manuals Blame Victim in Rape Cases

March 26, 2007

Anne CoughlinWhile law professor Anne Coughlin was studying old police interrogation manuals as part of her preparation to teach Miranda v. Arizona in her criminal procedure course back in the mid-1990s, she observed that all of the manuals recommended the use of victim-blaming stories in order to elicit confessions from suspects. This was particularly true of rape investigations, she found.

Coughlin said her first reaction was that feminism had not made a dent on the interrogation room.  Then, as she followed the issue through the literature over several years, she found that the problem was more complex than she had initially thought. These observations became the catalyst for her current research, which Coughlin presented March 21 as “Doing the Police in Different Voices,” a lecture honoring her appointment as O.M. Vicars Professor of Law.

“I realized that the problem…isn’t simply that feminist consciousness hasn’t penetrated as far as the police confessional—the more interesting problem is that the substantive criminal law may not be making an impact there either,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin explained that the pre-Miranda police interrogation manuals of the 1960s were guides to weaving stories with suspects. Once the police are reasonably convinced that the suspect is guilty, she said, the manuals instructed the investigators to form for suspects two or three alternative stories; each of these stories is incriminating, but one is less so; it would offer a moral (not legal) excuse for the suspect’s misconduct. The notion, Coughlin, said, is that upon hearing this morally excusing story, the suspect is going to feel comforted, and will be coaxed into giving a full confession.

Coughlin argued that the confessional is a space where truth is produced by the interrogator’s strategic use of narratives: stories about guilt and innocence. Confessions are not merely elicited from suspects; rather, they are actively produced by a very creative plotline that investigators offer up to suspects to get them talking, and keep them talking, until they ultimately sign on to a confession, she said. 
The most popular plotline involves direct condemnation of the victim, Coughlin said. Old interrogation manuals, such as the 1962 book “Criminal Interrogations and Confessions” by Fred Inbow, recommend the strategy of creating stories that blame the victim as a foolproof method of eliciting confessions, particularly in rape cases. Coughlin described some of the scripts, which usually involved the police investigator pretending to empathize with the victim, saying things like “If she hadn’t gone around dressed like that, you wouldn’t be in this room now.”

Around the same time as Miranda in 1966, which guaranteed suspects the right to talk to an attorney and the right to remain silent, Coughlin explained, “legislators across the country moved to eliminate victim-blaming from the substantive criminal law and to sharply limit the use of victim-blaming as an evidentiary strategy by defense lawyers.”

However, while the substantive criminal law has been reformed quite dramatically, Coughlin observed that it seems as if the changes to the substantive laws have had little effect on actual police procedure in the interrogation room.

“In the current edition…exactly the same victim-blaming stories appear today,” she said.

Coughlin said she aims to consider what interrogation stories may have to teach us about the character of police investigations as a device for recovering historical truth. She added that while she is not criticizing police for employing narrative as an interrogation strategy, she suggested that we think carefully about exactly what kind of stories are being woven by police interrogators.

“[We need to ask] what plotlines are we authorizing them to produce in the confessional room; again, stories that end up producing the truth upon which the system acts,” she said.

Coughlin offered some insight into this possible disconnect between the substantive law and actual police procedure, noting that the law gives very little direct guidance to police on how they should formulate the narratives during interrogations.

“That leaves a lot of room for police to maneuver in creating the truth,” she said.

After determining what the effects of the substantive criminal law and police procedure have on each other, Coughlin said she would like to ask the normative question of what the scripts should actually say.

Coughlin said her intuition was that victim-blaming in any area has the potential to reinforce the sexist stereotypes that blame women for being raped and that relieve their attackers for culpability for the crimes. The very fact that suspects continue to believe these scripts show that the sexist stereotypes continue to exist.  

Worse, Coughlin said, in acquaintance-rape cases, this victim-blaming strategy is handing the suspect a legal excuse, not just a moral one. In these cases, the suspect is not contesting that the sex occurred, but that it was consensual. Police are giving them an excuse: that they honestly believed the victim consented. Coughlin said it was clear to her in these instances that the victim-blaming stories should be done away with.

Law School Dean John C. Jeffries, Jr., introduced Coughlin, commenting on how much of a positive force Coughlin has been to the Law School community, and called her work “intellectually daring.”

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