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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Schools
Debunking confessions: Kennedy science researcher's paper accepted at national conference
Scott Brinton/Herald Life
Kennedy High School senior Rachel Abramowitz, right, with her adviser, Barbi Frank, studied false criminal confessions for her senior science project. She will present her research paper at the American Psychology Law Society’s conference in New Orleans in March.

Why would people in their right minds confess to crimes they did not commit? Falsely confessing to misdeeds as horrible as murder seems implausible, impossible even. But, according to research conducted by one Kennedy High School senior, it happens more often than you might think.

Rachel Abramowitz, 17, of Merrick, is a participant in Kennedy’s Authentic Science Research Program. For her senior thesis, she studied false confessions with Dr. Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

“Legal scholars have for years assumed that the confession is the gold standard of evidence,” Kassin said in an interview for the Vera Institute of Justice, “and when you had a confession, you had some certainty of conviction.”

Confessions, however, can be unreliable, in part because innocent people who are interrogated by police often falsely confess simply because they are too mentally or physically exhausted to continue answering questions.

Abramowitz published this and other key findings in her research paper, “Why Innocent People Comply with Police Requests: The Role of Just World Beliefs and Public Self-Consciousness.” The paper earned her semifinalist accolades at the recent Long Island Psychology Fair.

Abramowitz also submitted it to the American Psychology Law Society. The society, to Abramowitz’s surprise and delight, accepted her paper and invited her to speak at its next conference in New Orleans, March 6-8. She will be the society’s youngest presenter ever.

For Abramowitz, presenting her paper to a professional society will be a dream come true. “When I realized I had an impact on the scientific world,” she said, “I knew I was a scientist.”

Her adviser at Kennedy, Advanced Placement biology teacher Barbi Frank, said she is thrilled for Abramowitz. “She was really able to create her own project and go all the way with it,” Frank said.

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