Speed Reads


John Oliver explains what really happens in police interrogations, and why you should always request a lawyer

Police interrogations and dramatic confessions are "a staple of countless TV shows, including ones you might not expect," John Oliver said on Sunday night's Last Week Tonight. "But it's not just audiences who find them compelling — juries do, too. Confessions are viewed as the 'gold standard' when it comes to an indication of guilt," often even more persuasive than DNA evidence.

But "of all the convictions that have been overturned through DNA testing, 29 percent involved false confessions," Oliver said. And like many jurors, "you may find that hard to believe, because it can be very hard to comprehend how someone could confess to something they didn't do." But there are several reasons innocent people do just that, "and a lot of that comes down to what happens in a police interrogation room," he said. "So tonight let's talk about police interrogations: What tactics they use and how damaging they can be, particularly for the innocent. "

For one thing, "one study of false confessions found that they came after an average of 16.3 hours of questioning," Oliver said. "The notion that people crack under pressure and falsely confess really shouldn't be that hard to understand — it's a concept that even children's cartoons get." In real life, people end up in jail for decades — or even on death row — due to false confessions, he said, and recanting rarely works, in part because "as soon as the police get a confession, thorough investigations tend to stop."

If police bring you in for questioning, don't waive your right to have an attorney present, because among other things, police can legally "flat-out lie to you to make you think you have no other choice but to confess," alleging they have nonexistent evidence, Oliver said. "Allowing the police to lie to suspects is crazy. Most countries do not allow it, and for good reason: It is far too powerful a tool."

In fact, "the problem with police interrogations right now is the same problem that we have with policing at large," Oliver said: "They're emboldened to act however they'd like in a system where they hold an undue amount of power, with very few protections for civilians" and little cost to them when they get it wrong. The video has scattered NSFW language, lots of typical Oliver asides, and a brutally illustrative Tim Meadows cameo at the end.

CORRECTION: The original post misstated the actor who appeared with Oliver. It's since been corrected. We regret the error.