“Don’t do the time if you can’t do the crime” (False confessions)


Someone accused of a heinous crime they didn’t commit will likely be scared and confused, and after hours of intense questioning, will also be weary and sleep-deprived. Which means they may make poor decisions about whether to continue speaking or to have a lawyer present. Add to this mix the claim that evidence has been found again them and one can end up with the terrifying reality of a person admitting to something that they didn’t do and which will deprive them of their freedom and reputation. This is even more likely if they can be persuaded that they will be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge than what they are being accused of.

In an article for Debunking Denialism, Emil Karlsson wrote that authors of the police manual Criminal Interrogations and Confessions insist that if law enforcement officers ask certain questions of suspects and study their behavior and responses, they can make accurate determinations of guilt or innocence 85 percent of the time.

However, the study on which that assertion is based had no control group and no reliable way to determine the actual truth of the criminal cases where these techniques were used. Further, research shows that alleged signs of deception, such as nervousness and darting eyes, may not be that at all. Still, confirmation bias and subjective validation will make the percentage of successes seem greater.

The most common method of getting suspects to confess is through the Reid technique, which combines a hostile interrogation which assumes built and lying about evidence against the accused. In traditional good cop-bad cop fashion, there will eventually a more sympathetic ear offered to the accused as the interrogator tries to understand the reasoning behind the crime or to mitigate its circumstances. Then, contemplating the consequences of, say, being convicted of first-degree murder and pleading guilty to manslaughter, the accused may break down and make a false confession.

The introduction of manufactured evidence is crucial. Experiments have shown that false evidence used against the accused can double the number of persons who confess. In one such study, subjects filled out a computerized survey and were warned that if they hit the alt key, the machine would crash and the data be lost. If a subject were wrongly accused of doing this, half of them confessed to having done so. But when a purported eyewitness mendaciously claimed to have seen the alt key pressed, the confession rate rocketed to 94 percent.

And once a confession is made, the damage is usually irreversible. Karlsson wrote that studies utilizing mock jurors show that “confessions have an extraordinary high impact of decisions. Even when conclusively proven to be coerced, jurors are not able to discount their influence and thus cases where coerced confessions are presented and jurors are explicitly instructed to ignore it have a higher conviction rate than the same cases without a confession.” Even if the confession is false, proven to be coerced, and buoyed by no other evidence, the accused is much more likely to be convicted. If the defendant is painted by the prosecution or police as being unstable, that makes it even worse.

A lab study using an actual case demonstrated this. Researchers broke volunteers into four groups: A control group given the real story; a group given the real story but with a false confession thrown in; a group that got the real story but with an irrelevant testimony from police about the suspect’s emotional state; and a fourth group that heard both the false confession and irrelevant testimony.

The base rate conviction rate was 53 percent, a false confession increased that to 63 percent, while irrelevant testimony reduced it to 48 percent. But if hearing both the false confession and irrelevant testimony, mock jurors voted to convict nine times out of 10.





“Silver lying” (Beale ciphers)


Legend tells that a man named Thomas Beale discovered gold, silver, and jewels in present-day Colorado two centuries ago. Beale and 30 compatriots transported the haul, worth about $43 million today, to Bedford Country, Va., where they buried it.

Beale wrote three encoded letters about the valuables and left them with hotel proprietor Robert Morriss. The first note explained where the treasure lay; the second described what the valuables were comprised of; and the third mystery missive listed the names, locations, and relatives of the 30 persons who could share in the loot. Only the second of these letters has been decoded.

That letter included instructions on how to use the Declaration of Independence to decipher the text. Though littered with numerous spelling errors, the revealed message, after substantial copy editing, yields this script: “I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles.”

Morriss was never able to solve the other ciphers. He shared them James Ward, who in 1885 published them in a pamphlet, which also included the background story. Of note, the phrases, punctuation, and vocabulary range in the pamphlet are similar enough to the supposed writings of Beale that they likely emanated from the same source. As nearly seven decades had elapsed between the supposed Colorado trip and the pamphlet’s publication, Beale, if he ever existed, would likely have been deceased by 1885, strongly suggesting that Ward or a conspirator were the author of both tracts.

If the method for decoding the second letter is used when trying to decipher the other texts, it produces such sequences such as “abcdefghiijklmmnohpp,” and does so multiple times. The American Cryptogram Association states that the chances of such a run appearing twice in genuine text would be one in a hundred trillion. It could be that a source other than the Declaration of Independence is meant to be used in the decoding, but if so, Beale inconsistently left this crucial information out of the other two letters. There’s also the issue of why he would use different keys since all the messages were meant to be decoded at once.

So the ciphers are made up of one easily-decoded message and two that, if genuine, have utterly baffled world-class cryptographers for more than a century. Such a combination seems utterly implausible. Another giveaway to the ciphers’ likely fraudulent nature is that the third garbled missive, at barely 600 words, is insufficient to list the names, addresses, hometowns, and kinfolk of 30 persons.

Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, looked into the Beale Papers thoroughly and found still more discrepancies. He unearthed no record of a Thomas Beale in Buford County, Va., during the time Beale was allegedly residing there. Nickell also learned that Morriss only became a hotel proprietor in 1823, whereas the pamphlet listed him as running the operation in 1820 when Beale stayed there as a guest.

Further, a linguistic analysis showed that some words in the pamphlet, such as stampede and improvise, were not part of the English vocabulary in the 1820s. There’s also the highly unlikely scenario of 30 men agreeing to keep massive wealth buried, as opposed to spending, saving, and investing it.

Additionally, the tale has the crew sojourning in St. Louis on their way back east, and banks had opened on that side of the Mississippi by then. It would have been wise and cautious to deposit the metal and jewels, as opposed to carrying them by mule for another thousand miles and risk their theft or loss, only to bury them, which carries still more risk.

Geology raises still further doubts. According to Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning, gold and silver in ore form appear much different than they do after refining and purification. Yet Beale’s account has the men simply recognizing the gold and silver, then packing it up in a series of digs and trips that lasted 18 months. It strains credulity to think that a massive amount of valuables would be out in the open, seen only by 30 accidental prospectors who neither speak of it nor horde it for a year and a half.

What’s more, Dunning writes that gold and silver pure enough to be distinct from one another are never found in the same place. If they are in close proximity, they are alloyed and only become recognized as separate metals during refinement and purification.

None of this is enough to overcome greed or, if I’m being less jaded, curiosity and intrigue. Many self-styled treasure hunters have descended on Bedford County, although the only money that’s changed hands has been the fines levied on them for trespassing and unauthorized digging.

Other persons have tried to decipher the remaining letters by employing the Magna Carta, Bible, and U.S. Constitution, without success. I examined the codes and compared them with some of my blog posts to see if it revealed the location. Nothing yet, but tonight I’ll try doing that while lining up the posts and ciphers with Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.


“Things that make you go Hum” (Taos sound)


Much that is captivating when being pursued ceases to be of interest once the goal is met. Now that the Cubs have won the World Series, I no longer care if the Cubs win the World Series. Now that I know who Deep Throat was, I don’t care who Deep Throat was. One of the most enduring mysteries is whatever became of the Roanoke colonists. I read about this, encourage the continual search for clues, and would be greatly interested for about a week if a definitive conclusion were reached. But knowing the answer would cause my interest in the colony to diminish quickly then evaporate almost completely. 

While it’s far less fascinating than lost colonists and their Croatoan carving, another unsolved mystery relates to the Hum. This is a phenomenon where a low rumbling sound can be heard in certain places by select people. It can happen anywhere, but it mostly associated with Taos, N.M., and to lesser extents in Bristol, England; Auckland, New Zealand; and Kokomo, Ind.   

Sufferers describe it as akin to the idling of a distant diesel engine. Earplugs help some of them, suggesting this is indeed an audible phenomenon. But others report that earplugs make no difference, indicating it’s an internal ear issue.

As to what the cause might be, speculation has included insects, meteors, industrial equipment, high-pressure gas lines, seismic activity, and secret government projects. But these are all without backing and there’s no proof as to what’s going on. Others have suggested radio waves, but those produce a high-pitched sound that is opposite of what synthesized Hums sound like (synthesized Hums have been created by those who experience it so the rest of us will have some idea what they are going through).

The most conspiracy-happy speculation focuses on HAARP. However, the frequency of Hum reports did not increase when HAARP operations began, nor has the sound ever been reported near the site. Finally, like radio waves, the potential acoustic effects of HAARP signals are completely different from simulated Hums.  

Previously, some suspected LORAN, an extinct radio navigation system. But when LORAN went away, the Hum continued, so that explanation was out. Still others blame cell phone networks, but that explanation fails for the same reason as the HAARP and radio waves claims do. The emitted signals are far too high to be responsible for a low rumbling sound. This hypothesis only has currency among a paranoid crowd that sees cell phones, WiFi, wind turbines, and the like as being behind an array of health problems, all of which existed centuries before these technological developments. 

Mass hysteria has also been suggested, but that also falls flat, if only for linguistic reasons. Even in Taos, just two percent of residents report having ever heard it. So even if this is an auditory hallucination, it’s not on a large scale. As to hysteria, that generally suggests unwarranted panic and few people are freaking out about this, though extremists think the government or other powerful entity is behind this for mind control purposes.  

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid wrote about the Hum and it turns out he might have first-hand experience with it. He suffers from tinnitus and relates this anecdote:

“It sounds nothing like the Hum. However, by yawning or by tightening the tensor tympani muscle inside my ear, I can induce a loud, low-frequency rumble. When I do this, it sounds exactly like the Hum. It’s not hard to think that some people may have this condition chronically, and since this is the exact sound described by Hum sufferers, it’s virtually certain that some variation on this condition is the explanation for some of them.”

Still, Dunning concludes that the Hum does not exist as a single worldwide phenomenon. Rather, he and others perceive a low rumble under certain conditions. Some are likely hearing an actual audible sound from an undiscovered source while others may be plagued by tinnitus or similar condition. Still others may be having auditory hallucinations while a different group of sufferers may have heightened hearing that combines with an undiscovered geophysical phenomenon to produce the sound. Others may be experiencing spontaneous otoacoustic emissions, which arise through cellular and mechanical causes within the inner ear. With it still being largely a mystery, we cannot even rule out it being part of a secret sinister strategy. Maybe someday we know, I just kind of hope not.