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Claude Lévi-Strauss talked at one point about a Navajo trial. A young man was charged with casting a spell on a girl, a charge which, however sincerely believed by the accusers, we are to assume must be false. The defendant, however, does not deny the charge against him for very long, even though he of all people should know that he is innocent. He constructs a story about how he did it, revising his explanation to match the expectations of the judges. Once he has thoroughly implicated himself and laid out all the gory details of how he (supposedly) committed the crime, the judges accept the story and decline to punish him.

The explanation, Lévi-Strauss says, is that the more serious issue at stake was not the ensorcelling of the girl, but rather the blow to the social system caused by someone rejecting its tenets. By breaking the rules, a sorcerer calls them into question. A sorcerer, or someone accused of being one, is thus separated from the community by virtue of these broken social values. But by constructing the story, the accused integrated the threatening crime back into the Navajo worldview. And in doing so, he brings himself back into the tribe. The interrogation was not so much a means of establishing the truth as it is a means of affirming the social system.

When we read this passage, it tends to strike us as alien. We're used to trials as means of establishing facts of guilt and innocence, not as social rituals that act out our values and integrate the community. But it seems we're not so different from the Navajo after all:

The Truth About Confessions

How many people over the centuries have been executed or spent life in prison on the basis of a false confession? Eddie Joe Lloyd of Detroit, who in 1984 confessed to the gruesome rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl, was freed from prison last week because DNA testing proved that he was innocent. He had spent 17 years behind bars.

The idea that one can confess to a crime one didn't commit seems bizarre. Confession is the most personal of statements. It is supposed to express the intimate truth of the individual, to reveal his lived experience and "inner dispositions," as Rousseau put it in his "Confessions." This truth, these dispositions, are obscure, shifting, illusive; most confessions are laden with unintended meanings.

As the psychoanalyst Theodore Reik noted in "The Compulsion to Confess," confession is often not an end in itself, but rather the means of an appeal to parents or authority figures for absolution and affection.

Police interrogators are authority figures with a vengeance. They can use the consolatory model of religious confession, implying that absolution will come from making a clean breast of things, leading to a reintegration with the community from which the suspect is now wholly severed. Courts have played along, permitting them to use all sorts of ruses, including outright lies — claiming "proof" of guilt from fabricated polygraph tests, false eyewitness reports, false findings of fingerprints, hair, blood or semen at the crime scene.


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