Classroom Activities
The Confessions

After being interrogated relentlessly for many hours, four U.S. Navy sailors separately confessed to committing a violent rape and murder despite the lack of any evidence linking them to the crime. Based on their confessions, and despite there being no DNA match at the crime scene, each of the men was sent to prison for the crimes. In this video chapter from The Confessions, students will consider why someone would give a false confession and examine the different types of evidence that can be used to identify perpetrators of a crime.

Getting Started

Watch the video clip and start a discussion about why an innocent person might confess to a crime, and assess how that confession ranks with other types of evidence used in criminal cases. Go further in this topic with The Confessions lesson plan, in which students evaluate the strengths and limitations of different types of evidence, including physical evidence, eyewitness accounts and confessions.


Video Themes

  • Although it may be hard to believe, people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit. The way a person is questioned during interrogation, as well as the personality of the person involved, may contribute to a false confession.

  • Interrogation techniques such as yelling or lying about evidence are legal as long as the suspect is not threatened or coerced into confession.

  • Defendants may plead guilty — even if they are not — in the hopes of reducing the severity of the crime they are charged with or to get a more lenient sentence. This is called plea bargaining.

  • In real-life court cases, unlike fictional ones on TV or in the movies, it is often difficult to determine the truth of what happened.

  • Many different kinds of evidence can be used to make a case about a person’s guilt or innocence in a crime. Each type of evidence has strengths and limitations.

Discussion Questions

  • When interrogating suspected criminals, police are allowed to make accusations, lie about or make up evidence, yell at the suspects or get in their faces. In the case shown in the video, the police told one of the men that he had failed a polygraph (lie detector) test, even though he had passed it. Why do you think it is legal for police to lie when questioning a potential criminal? Do you think that is right? What do you think police should and should not be allowed to do during an interrogation?

  • Before being questioned by police, suspects must be told their Miranda rights, which give them the right to remain silent and to speak to an attorney. Why might these men have waived their rights? In what ways might their innocence have affected their perception of the importance of remaining silent or having a lawyer present? How might their story have been different if they had insisted on exercising these rights?

  • In this case, DNA tests of hair and bodily fluids did not indicate that any of the four men were at the crime scene. Why didn’t the DNA test results help clear these men of the crime?

  • Eventually these men were found or pleaded guilty of the crime in court, even though there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and a positive DNA match identified another man who had confessed to the crime. How could that happen? In what ways were the following parties responsible for the outcome: the four men themselves; the police; the lawyers; and — in the case of a court trial — the jury?

  • This case took place in Virginia, which not only has a death penalty, but also has the highest total number of executions of all the states in the nation. How did the possibility of the death penalty play into this story?

Go Further

The Confessions Lesson Plan: “Weighing the Evidence”

Web-exclusive Resources: What Most People Don’t Know — Some facts and details not in the film
False Confessions and Interrogation — Research and study on what makes people confess to crimes they have not committed



Developed by:
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.


Written by:
Leslie Comnes, M.A., is an education writer specializing in teaching materials that focus on topical issues in environmental education, science and social science. In addition to FRONTLINE, she has written for Project Learning Tree, the Center for Ecoliteracy, the Council for Environmental Education and many other national organizations.

home » previous reports » watch online » about us » teacher center » newsletter »  rss feeds » email FRONTLINE » privacy policy » wgbh » pbs

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2009 WGBH Educational Foundation