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Research Reveals Insight on Juvenile Interrogations and Confessions Mar - April 2014 (click here for printable version)
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It is well accepted that juvenile suspects are more susceptible to falsely confess than adult suspects. This has been documented by a number of high profile cases such as the attack of the central park jogger where five juvenile suspects falsely confessed to assaulting the jogger. The author's first homicide case involved the administration of a polygraph examination to a 14-year-old suspect who had readily confessed to the police to killing a neighbor who was fighting with his father. When the boy learned that he would be tried as an adult and faced life in prison, he recanted his confession, explaining that his father had actually killed the neighbor. A polygraph examination verified the boy's innocence and the father was charged with the murder.
A number of theories have been offered to explain this phenomenon primarily relating to a juvenile suspect's impulsivity, susceptibility to social influence, and immature judgment. A recent study addressing various aspects of juvenile interrogation practices provides insight that may help reduce future false confessions and convictions.(1)
The sample consisted of 193 males between the ages of 14 - 17 who were incarcerated in a juvenile detention center in California for serious offenses. After two months of incarceration the volunteer subjects were interviewed on three separate occasions using standardized question and objective coding techniques. In an effort to elicit truthful responses, the subjects were promised extensive confidentiality, to include protection from future subpoenas, criminal prosecution or civil law suits.
Collecting self-reported data is always susceptible to false reporting. This is especially true when dealing with a sample of individuals who have demonstrated anti-social behaviors, such as committing crimes and frequent lying. Finally, it is well established that guilty suspects often assume a "victim mentality" where they perceive themselves as a victim of an unfair system. A guilty criminal suspect claiming that he falsely confessed because of improper police procedures would clearly fall within this description.
It would be easy to dismiss the findings of this study based on self-reporting bias except for the fact that the authors elicited information about not only false confessions but also about true confessions. While the statistical frequency of false confessions may be misleading (to be discussed shortly) the acknowledged truthful confessions lend credibility to the findings.
The other noteworthy aspect of this study is that it looked at not only false confessions during police interrogations, but the frequency of true and false guilty pleas offered at trial. The dangers of making threats of inevitable consequences coupled with promises of leniency is closely associated with false confessions and guilty pleas. (2) The practice of offering defendants plea bargains is a significant issue that has not been previously addressed through research.
Four categories of findings within this study will be presented. Table A shows the number of juveniles who acknowledged making a true or false admission to the police (at any time in their lives) as well as those who offered a true or false guilty plea (at any time) to a judge and who did not confess to the police:
This data found that 94 of the 193 juveniles (48.7%) offered true confessions to the police or offered a truthful guilty plea to a judge. On the other hand, 68 juveniles (35.2%) reported that they falsely confessed to the police or falsely plead guilty at trial. Forty-four juveniles (22.8%) reported that they made no admission, true or false to the police.
This finding does not mean that there was a 17% false confession rate from juveniles. The incarcerated juveniles who were studied were incarcerated for serious offenses, and they likely had multiple contacts with law enforcement. Consequently, when these juveniles were asked if they ever made a false admission to the police it could have been a trivial false admission completely unrelated to their current incarceration. In other words, the false admissions were not necessarily tied to false convictions. It is also important to realize that these juveniles were serving time in a detention center. This means a court found beyond a reasonable doubt that these juveniles had committed a crime; these 33 false admissions did not necessary result in a miscarriage of justice.
A much more disturbing finding was the reported false guilty pleas offered to a judge at trial. The 35 juveniles who reportedly offered a false guilty plea had not previously confessed to the police. Evidently, these "innocent" juveniles were convinced by their attorney that it was in their best interest to plead guilty at trial.
Table B lists the reported motivation for making a false admission or guilty pleas and table C lists motivations for true admissions and pleas to a judge. When coding motives, duress was considered feeling pressured, being offered a promise of leniency, not understanding what the investigator or attorney was saying, or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Instrumental included such things as being offered a reduced sentence or avoiding a more serious charge. Perception of proof refers to the perceived strength of the evidence against the suspect or the likelihood of a conviction at trial.
A number of findings stand out in table B. The first is the frequency of protecting another person as a motive for both false confessions and false guilty pleas. Second, is the relatively high frequency of duress being associated especially with false admissions of guilt. As will be discussed later, this motive also appears to influence the decision to retract a confession or guilty plea. While there were a number of factors that contributed to duress, some of them legal (applying psychological pressure) and others illegal (offering a promise of leniency) being under the influence of a drug or alcohol ranked the highest.
With respect to motives for true admissions, emotions (feeling guilty, get it over with) or logic (proof of guilt) represent almost two thirds of the sample. The reference to duress, as pointed out above, may or may not have involved illegal interrogation techniques whereas offering a promise of a lesser sentence or threatening a more severe sentence (instrumental) clearly is an illegal interrogation tactic.
Table D lists all subjects (truthful and false admissions and pleas) reported experiences of different interrogation tactics used by both police and attorneys. While most tactics are self-explanatory, refusals refer to refusing requests for a break, food, attorney, or sleep. There was no distinction between verbal threats of future events such as loss of reputation or respect, ability to earn income or committing worse crimes, which are legal vs threats of physical harm which, of course, are illegal. Deception involved making a false statement to the suspect about incriminating evidence.
Because there was no attempt to quantify interrogation technique by subject status (true or false admission, guilty plea) no conclusion can be made that certain techniques are more or less likely to cause true or false admissions or guilty pleas.
Other findings relating to interrogation practices include the length of the interrogation. The range of interrogations conducted by the police were 1 minute to 48 hours, with the median being 2 hours. Much less time was spent by attorneys to persuade their clients to plead guilty, the maximum being 30 minutes. Sixty-five percent of juveniles who reported offering a false admission of guilt were interrogated for two or more hours.
Two thirds of juveniles who offered false admissions reported that two or more police officers were involved in the interrogation. Another factor associated with false admissions of guilt was being interrogated multiple times concerning the same crime.
The authors also studied the behavior of retracting a confession and found that 33% of the juveniles who made a false admission of guilt and 26% who offered a false guilty plea retracted, or attempted to retract their admission or guilty plea. No data was reported on retractions by juveniles whose admission or guilty plea was truthful.
It is of interest to note that rarely was there an attempt to retract a false confession or false guilty plea motivated to protect another person.
Implications for juvenile interrogations
The most blatant omission from this research is the failure of the researchers to evaluate the juvenile's corroboration within a confession or guilty plea. As this data demonstrates, there is no unique or identifiable interrogation tactic or circumstance that predicts that a confession or guilty plea is true or false. The only way that determination can be made is by evaluating the accuracy and level of corroboration within the statement. If the jurisdiction from which this sample was taken is representative, it suggests that police and courts are failing in their efforts to corroborate confessions and guilty pleas.
Statistically, refusals to satisfy a suspect's request for a break, food, or attorney was the most common cause for a false confession. This suggests not only a policy where such requests reasonably be met, but also a mandate to electronically record interrogations to demonstrate to the court that the suspect's requests were addressed.
Interestingly, while deception (lying about incriminating evidence) was a common tactic used by both police and attorneys, proof of guilt was not a significant motivation resulting in false confessions or admissions of guilt but was effective in persuading guilty suspects to confess or offer a guilty plea. This finding refutes years of laboratory research indicating that lying to a suspect about incriminating evidence increases the likelihood of a false confession.
With respect to basic interrogation practices, Reid and Associates has always taught to have a single investigator in the room to conduct the interrogation, never to threaten a suspect with inevitable consequences or physical harm, to treat suspects with respect and decency (not to insult), to make certain a suspect's basic biological needs (sleep, food etc.) have been met, and to honor the suspect's request for an attorney or to remain silent. We also teach that if a suspect is still protesting innocence after three or four hours of interrogation, the investigator should reevaluate the suspect's guilty status. This study suggests that many of the interrogators did not follow interrogation procedures advocated by John E. Reid and Associates.
Reid and Associates also recommends that investigators have a suspect complete a data sheet which includes information about alcohol or medication use. Thirty-nine percent of the juveniles who reported offering false confessions claim to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time they confessed. Undoubtedly, many of these admissions were made shortly after being picked up for a crime, possibly in the back seat of a squad car. This finding again emphasizes the importance of electronically recording interrogations to identify whether the suspect appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of questioning. At the very least, every suspect should be asked at the outset of an interview whether they have consumed alcohol or drugs in the last 24 hours.
The first paragraph of this article mentioned the author's experience with a 14-year-old homicide suspect who falsely confessed to the police. Perhaps not coincidentally, the confession was offered to protect someone else. As this current study demonstrates, the high frequency of false confessions and pleas motivated to protect someone else should cause investigators to pursue this possibility with every juvenile confession. After a juvenile confesses the investigator should ask, point blank, "Are you telling me this to protect someone else?" Had the investigator asked the boy in my investigation that question, perhaps he never would have been charged with murder.
1 Malloy, L.C., Shulman, E.P., & Cauffman, E., " Interrogations, Confessions, and Guilty Pleas Among Serious Adolescent Offenders" Law and Human Behavior, October, 2013
2 Jayne, B. and Buckley, J, "The Danger of Threatening Inevitable Consequences," A Field Guide to the Reid Technique", p. 344, 201
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