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Lies, Deception and the Criminal Justice System

Lying is a common human behavior. But deception of others – and ourselves – can have great impacts on society.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Apr 25, 2022 3:00 PMApr 25, 2022 3:34 PM
(Credit: Ta Animator/Shutterstock)


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Antwaun Cubie, at 18, had been in the police station in Oak Park, Ill. for hours. He said police had beaten him, and was frightened and exhausted. He wanted to call his mother, and but said a detective told him he needed to sign and date a document to make the call. Cubie signed the blank page.

The signature became part of a typed, two-page confession in which Cubie supposedly admitted to fatally shooting a friend. Cubie’s legal team agrees detectives falsified the confession. “The handwritten notes were destroyed. It’s not videotaped, it’s not recorded. You don’t know what went on in there. That means these are not his words,” says Joe O’Hara with the law firm Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila in Chicago, which has taken on Cubie’s case pro bono.

The typed confession, however, was a critical part of the case against Cubie, who never had a criminal record prior to his 1996 arrest. A judge sentenced him to life in prison. Cubie is now 44 years old and still behind bars.

Major lies, like the one that Cubie’s attorney says the investigators crafted, can have tremendous impact. Forensic scientists and psychologists have studied why people deceive. There are many motivations, all of which are based on what the deceiver feels is a beneficial outcome. Problematically, liars can also deceive themselves and not fully appreciate their actions.

Complete Deception

The extent of the deception helps social scientists organize lies. In a pertinent omission, the deceiver leaves out a key fact that would likely change the other person’s view. With exaggerations, the deceiver emphasizes or heightens aspects they feel are most favorable. For half-truths, the lie contains some elements of the truth, which are typically the most advantageous to the deceiver. And with complete deception, the deceiver creates an entirely fabricated story that contains no aspects of the truth.

The deceiver’s belief that they have more to gain from lying than telling the truth is what motivates all lies, whether small or big. Prosocial lies are meant for the benefit of the other person, meaning the truth would somehow harm them. Antisocial lies are told for the benefit of the deceiver, and they assume the truth would somehow hurt them.

Most people are not adept at distinguishing between a lie and a truth. In studies, people detected lies with the same accuracy as guessing whether a coin toss would come up heads or tails. Even people trained in lie detection did not have greater success with identifying lies.

Part of the difficulty in deciphering a lie is that the deceiver might be lying to themselves, too.

Inner Deception

Research into self-deception is paired with inquiries into overconfidence. Scholars have considered which biases a person must develop to not see a realistic version of themselves or their abilities. They also see a parallel with the biases a person has in deceiving themselves.

Researchers do not agree on what motivates a person to accept their made-up version of the truth. One theory holds that self-deception is an evolutionary response. If a person is lying to themselves and believes the story they have fabricated, they are less likely to give away slight cues, like lack of eye contact, that typically indicate a person is lying.

Another approach suggests that self-deception comes not only from the lies that are told, but also the deceiver’s understanding for why they lie. Liars can assure themselves they had others’ best intentions in mind, or even convince themselves there was a miscommunication and they never meant to lie in the first place.

Although researchers don’t agree as to why people deceive themselves, they do find that some organizations have a culture that not only permits deception, but expects it as a form of loyalty to win at all costs.

A Culture of Deception

Scholars who study false allegations and why people lie to police, also consider the impact these fabrications have on police forces. Some law enforcement agencies have developed a “noble cause” belief system in which they perceive themselves as fighting a war on crime. In this sense, the officer’s responsibility is only to the victim.

Police departments with a “noble cause” culture are more likely to develop “noble cause corruption,” which are illegal acts committed to secure a conviction. “The Magic Pencil,” in particular, is a noted form of noble cause corruption. With “The Magic Pencil,” a police officer fictionalizes an incident report with the purpose of criminalizing the suspect.

“The Magic Pencil” is associated with an over commitment to the cause, and a belief that the end goal of fighting crime justifies the means. It is similar to corrupt means such as “testilying” (lying on the witness stand), or torture during interrogation.

O’Hara says his client was the victim of both “The Magic Pencil” and “testilying,” and it ruined his life. Cubie went from being an Illinois All-State basketball player with a scholarship to a junior college, to an inmate without the hope of parole. O’Hara’s team is now working on the case in the hopes that after 25 years, Cubie can finally walk free.

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