Faking a Prisoners’ Dilemma to Get Out of Trouble

Imagine you committed a crime alone and the police eventually figure out that you did it. You believe there is enough evidence against you for you to be convicted of the crime, and you will serve a long sentence. You have nothing to offer the police to reduce your sentence or avoid getting in trouble at all. So what could you do? You could make up an accomplice to reduce your sentence. In other words, you could create a prisoners’ dilemma. In the fake prisoners’ dilemma, as long as you confess, no matter what the fake accomplice does (stay silent or confess), you will get a better payoff than going to jail for a long time because you acted alone.

In the classic prisoners’ dilemma, there are two criminals. Detectives speak to each criminal separately. Each criminal can either “Stay Silent” or “Confess.” I illustrate the outcomes of this game below with appropriate payoffs.

  1. If neither criminal confesses, both go to jail for a short period for lesser charges (a payoff of -2).
  2. If one criminal confesses and the other stays silent, the one who confessed goes free (a payoff of 0) while the one who stayed silent gets a very long sentence (a payoff of -10).
  3. If both confess, they both get moderate sentences for cooperating with police (a payoff of -5).


The dominate strategy for each prisoner in this game is to “Confess.” No matter what the other criminal does, it is always better to “Confess.” If Criminal A stays silent, it is better for Criminal B to confess because Criminal B will go free. If, on the other hand, Criminal A confesses, it is better for Criminal B to confess because if he does not, Criminal B will go to jail for a very long time.

In the original scenario, the criminal goes to jail for a long time, a payoff of -10, just like in the prisoners’ dilemma. However, in the scenario where the criminal fakes an accomplice and creates a prisoners’ dilemma, as long as the criminal confesses, he will either not go to jail because the fake accomplice stayed silent (a payoff off 0) or get a moderate sentence because the fake accomplice confessed (a payoff of -5). These are both better outcomes than going to jail for a long time (a payoff of -10).

Additionally, it is possible that the fake accomplice is unaware that he is playing a prisoners’ dilemma. If the accomplice did not commit the crime, he probably has no idea the criminal actually committed the crime. As such, he probably would not know that there is a lot of evidence against the actual criminal, and therefore against him because he is associated with the criminal. So the accomplice may fail to confess to the crime because he believes there is no evidence against him and there is no way he will be convicted of a crime he did not commit. If the accomplice stays silent, he will go to jail for a long time while the actual criminal can go free.

The reason I thought of this hypothetical scenario is because I have been (like many others) obsessed with a new podcast called Serial. Each week, the producer of the podcast, Sarah Koenig, goes through her journey of investigating an old murder case. The victim in the case is Hae Min Lee. There are two main suspects in this case, Adnan (Hae’s ex-boyfriend) and his friend Jay. It is clear that Jay was involved in the murder, but it unclear whether Adnan was. However, Adnan is serving life in prison while Jay never served a day in jail.

On (or around) January 13, 1999, Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School outside of Baltimore, was strangled to death and buried in the woods in Leakin Park. The police suspected her ex-boyfriend, Adnan, of the murder. They got his cell phone records and the records indicated that his cell phone was in the vicinity of Woodlawn High School during the time period of Hae’s disappearance (between 3-3:30 pm). More importantly, however, Adnan’s phone was not in his possession during the time of Hae’s disappearance. His friend Jay had the phone. In addition, the only real evidence that ties Adnan to the murder is Jay’s confession (and the confession of Jay’s friend Jenn who supposedly helped dispose of evidence after the murder).

I will not go into too much detail about this in the blog post, but Jay’s statements to the police changed dramatically each time he spoke to the police. And his statements are inconsistent with the cell phone tower evidence- he said he was not near Woodlawn at the time Hae went missing but he clearly was. In addition, Jay knew details about Hae’s murder, where her body was buried, and where her missing car was located. Therefore, Jay must have been involved in the murder somehow. Jay is clearly guilty of murder or as an accomplice to murder.

On the other hand, there is very little evidence against Adnan. There is no physical evidence against him from the crime scene. There are also a handful of people who stated they saw him that day on or around the time Hae went missing, and on or around the time she was supposedly buried. The biggest factors against Adnan is Jay’s confession, and the fact that he had the motive to commit the crime, since he was Hae’s ex-boyfriend.

Now if Jay believed that the police had enough evidence against him to put him in jail, and he had no bargaining power to reduce his sentence, he could offer them “fake information” by blaming Adnan to get a reduced sentence. Jay never did serve any jail time. And Adnan has a very long sentence. The actual circumstances of the case are more complex than simply faking a prisoners’ dilemma, but it is not unheard of for criminals to offer false information to get reduced sentences, so it would not be surprising if Jay brought Adnan into the picture to get out of trouble.

Edit: I wrote this post before the night before a new episode came out, and something Adnan said in the episode was relevant to this blog post. He said that one thing he has learned over the years being in prison is that if you are being charged with first degree murder, take the plea deal even if you did not do it. He said it was almost impossible to be found not guilty of first degree murder, and you will spend more time in prison if you go in front of a jury. So Adnan is suggesting to always “Confess” even if you did not do it.

Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

5 Replies to “Faking a Prisoners’ Dilemma to Get Out of Trouble”

  1. Pingback: Great Breakdown of Prisoner’s Dilemma and SERIAL Podcast | The Idiot Economist

  2. There are a number of problems with this analysis. Notably: “In the fake prisoners’ dilemma, as long as you confess, no matter what the fake accomplice does (stay silent or confess), you will get a better payoff than going to jail for a long time because you acted alone.” This does not apply to Jay. Let’s say he actually did kill Hae. If he confesses and says it was a crime of passion, he probably gets 25-30 years as a plea. If he attempts to frame Adnan and is caught, it’s evidence of extreme premeditation and he probably would have been sentenced to death.

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