Academic Features

A Case of Confabulation? The Psychology Behind the Reykjavik Confessions

Written by Kat Jivkova. Two disappearances in the 1970s sparked what would become known as the Reykjavik Confessions. The investigation was problematic from the start, with the interrogation methods creating problems of confabulation.

In 1974, the disappearances of two men in Reykjavik shook the Icelandic peninsula. Gudmundur Einarsson, an 18-year-old labourer, made the poor decision to walk the 10 kilometres home following a night out at a dance hall in Hafnarfjordur. He was never seen again. Ten months later, Geirfinnur Einarsson drove to the harbour café in Keflavik and vanished into thin air, his car keys still in the ignition. 

Disappearances were not uncommon in Iceland in the 1970s – the barren landscape and adverse weather conditions in the country make it easy for people to “go missing without anyone finding anything out”, according to Snorri Magnusson, an Icelandic police detective. What stood out about the disappearances of these two unrelated men was the lack of forensic evidence acquired by the police surrounding their cases, and the authorities’ reliance instead on the confessions of a series of suspects for closing the case. The methods of the police were questionable; it seemed they were more concerned with arresting a group of minor criminals on the fringes of society than they were with finding concrete evidence for the two cases, fuelling their ‘hunch’ through a series of forced confessions extracted from suspects after months of torturous solitude.

The police associated the murder of the two men with six suspects, who were kept in solitary confinement for a minimum of 87 days. They suffered harsh interrogations, some lasting 340 hours, and were subsequently convicted solely based on their confessions. It was only in 2011, when Iceland’s Minister of the Interior instigated an investigation into the reliability of these processes, that the psychological factors behind the confessions were considered, particularly memory distrust syndrome (MDS). This investigation was completed by the Working Group and the Icelandic Court Cases Review Commission, who argued that the mechanisms behind this syndrome potentially led to a series of false confessions and confabulations, the replacement of a gap in a person’s memory with an event that may be untrue. 

There are a series of factors that may have caused the six suspects to confess to crimes they had not committed, the most prominent being the psychological effects of the interrogations. Generally, this refers to the ways in which the police undermine the suspects’ memory of their alibi until they are no longer certain whether they did or did not commit the offence. This can be seen in the Gudmunder and Geirfinnur cases. A rumour that a petty criminal, Seavar Ciesielski, was connected to the disappearances, caught the attention of the police in 1975, when Seavar and his girlfriend Erla were arrested for a minor crime. The police, unusually, began to question Erla about the seemingly unrelated disappearances, and she admitted to having seen Gudmunder on the night of his disappearance. The officers latched onto this and were determined to discover their version of the truth. Meanwhile Erla was left in confinement wondering whether the events she remembered of that night were in her imagination – a case of confabulation. This also translated to Seavar, who began to internalise the belief that perhaps he did have something to do with Gudmunder’s disappearance and alleged murder.

The psychology behind confabulation is based mostly on case histories, though there is emerging laboratory evidence to support these findings, specifically focused on understanding the conditions under which MDS is provoked. However, laboratory studies cannot take into account the break-down of the lengthy interrogations and manipulative interviews which played a vital role in the Reykjavik confessions. This can be seen in Seavar’s case. He coped badly in solitary confinement due to his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but despite this, his interrogations frequently exceeded the six-hour legal limit and he remained in confinement for 741 days in total. His lawyer was rarely present during his questioning and for two months, the light in his cell was kept on for 24 hours a day. Bearing this in mind, it must be argued that cases of false confession cannot only be assessed using quantitative data and laboratory research, as this takes away the personal experiences of its victims. In Seavar’s speech in the District Court in 1977 he asserted that “innocent people are made to confess to crimes they did not commit and are then rejected by society.” The German police investigator and ‘supercop’ Karl Schutz was assigned to the case in 1976 and took over shortly after. He was convinced that Seavar and the other suspects were guilty, and his main aim was to accumulate a collection of consistent confessions from them all, a display of poor intentions from the police.  

Another of the six suspects of the murders was Gudjón Skarphédinsson, who had kept a diary during his detention. This diary now provides an interesting insight into the mental state and thought processes of the suspects overall. Skarphédinsson’s mental health was already in peril before his confinement; his wife was concerned with his mental state in the spring of 1974, though he refused to see a psychiatrist at the time. He was initially interviewed about Geirfinnur’s murder in 1976 due to his connection with Seavar and denied knowing anything about the case. After extensive interviews for 25 hours, he began to contemplate his role in the Geirfinnur case, suggesting he perhaps travelled to Keflavik on the day of his disappearance, however, he could not remember encountering Geirfinnur. 

The police took advantage of Skarphédinsson’s mental state and used it as a tool for cultivating his confession. Skarphédinsson’s diary shows the further deterioration of his health during his solitary confinement; “I’m all breaking down and hardly recognise my name with certainty.” A heuristic model of memory distrust can be constructed to outline the experiences of Skarphédinsson and his reconstruction of the truth. The model includes contextual factors that ultimately led to internalised false confessions: “Enduring” factors, which were vulnerabilities he suffered with before confinement, and “Acute State” factors, which became prominent as he began to distrust his memory and instead trust his investigators. Karl Schutz, who was leading Skarphédinsson’s inquiry, told him “you should confess because you will feel better afterwards”, reinforcing the police’s manipulation of his questioning. These two factors undoubtedly fuelled the increased plausibility of his involvement in Geirfinnur’s disappearance. Further research into the psychological effects of interrogation has revealed that it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, which Skarphédinsson and the other six suspects certainly developed as a result of the police methods. 

The psychology behind false confessions has been analysed by a former Icelandic detective, Gisli Gudjonsson, who is a leading expert on false memory syndrome and has worked on other major cases such as the Birmingham Six. He stated that Skarphédinsson’s diary is probably the most defined example of MDS he has seen, substantiating the controversy surrounding the Icelandic police’s methods in the 1970s. MDS has since been diffused into forensic psychology and led to a revival of the Gudmundur Geirfinnur case by the Working Group. Their key findings were concerned with police brutality. The lengthy detention of the suspects in the case was also criticised by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture earlier in 1993. Importantly, the group deemed the confessions of the suspects unreliable due to factors including personal circumstances and solitary confinement, Skarphédinsson’s disproportionate trust in his investigators being an example of this.

The Reykjavik Confessions, therefore, serve as a lesson for potential memory distrust and interrogation methods. Analysis of this particular case may allow psychologists to outline preventative measures concerning confabulation. Included in these measures, police interview training improvement must take place, and the recording of all interviews would enable the process of interrogation to be scrutinised more closely. There is also a need to develop a direct measure of memory distrust so that cases of false confession can be minimised in the future. The Gudmunder-Geirfinnur case is certainly a tale of mystery and mental torture, and the truth behind the demise of the two men remains a secret. 

Written by Kat Jivkova

Bibliography

BBC. ‘The Reykjavik Confessions.’ [Online]. [Accessed on 29 November 2020]. INCCCCC – BBC News

Gudjonsson, Gisli. “Memory Distrust Syndrome, Confabulation and False Confession.” Cortex 87 (2017): 156-65.

Gudjonsson, Gisli Hannes, Sigurdsson, Jon Fridrik, Sigurdardottir, Arndis Soffia, Steinthorsson, Haraldur, and Sigurdardottir, Valgerdur Maria. “The Role of Memory Distrust in Cases of Internalised False Confession.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 28, no. 3 (2014): 336-48.

Gudjonsson, Gisli H. The Psychology of False Confessions. Wiley Series in the Psychology of Crime, Policing and Law. Newark: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., (2018).

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