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John Mark Karr and the False Confession: Why?

A pathological need for attention, or blurring of reality, may underlie the phenomenon of false confessions.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

When John Mark Karr was picked up in Thailand August 16, police thought they finally had a break in the 1996 murder case of 6-year-old pageant princess JonBenet Ramsey. After all, Karr publicly confessed to the murder.

But on Monday, after finding the 41-year-old school teacher's DNA didn't match that found on the little girl's underwear, Colorado authorities said they weren't going to charge Karr with the murder.

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Why would anyone confess to a crime he didn't commit?

While there is no "typical" false confessor, psychologists who study the phenomenon speculate that Karr was looking for attention -- and that he had fantasized so extensively about JonBenet, even claiming that he loved her, that the line between fantasy and reality, for him, has blurred.

For some other false confessors, it may simply be the thrill of the lie -- they love duping people.

The Drive for Attention

"Some false confessors have a pathological need for attention," Saul Kassin, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says to explain confessions like Karr's.

"That is what everyone is speculating in the Karr case," he says. "The pathology is such that that need predominates. And everything else fades into the background." Even the risk of prison or death.

"They are driven by the limelight," adds Eric Hickey, PhD, professor of criminal psychology at California State University, Fresno, and director of the Center of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, Fresno. And, sometimes, financial gain. "They want the notoriety, the attention, but they also plan on making money. Some people may have in mind when they confess, maybe a book [will come out of this]."

Other confessors are angry and want to be heard, Hickey says. "They want a voice. They don't feel like they have a voice."

Thin Line Between Fantasy and Reality

A blurring of fantasy and reality can also play a role in a false confession. "We know that Karr has immersed himself in the facts of this case," Kassin says. News reports describe how Karr emailed a Colorado professor repeatedly, talking about his involvement in the murder.

"He wanted to be connected to JonBenet so badly," Hickey says. "Maybe he thought about it so much he fantasized himself into believing it."

When people repeatedly imagine an event, over and over, they become less certain about whether it is real or not, Kassin says. "The memory research on this is clear -- it's called 'imagination inflation.'"

Complicating Karr's situation, Hickey says, is that he appears to be a man "with a lot of conflict, questions about his own sexual identity."

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