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Wrongful Convictions Are a Nationwide Tragedy. The Problem is Even Worse for Juveniles.

You may have read about the tragic and inexcusable injustice suffered by Kenneth Ireland, a Connecticut man who spent 21 years behind bars in horrific conditions after he was convicted for a rape and murder he did not commit. Freed in 2009 by DNA evidence and the hard work of the Connecticut Innocence Project, Ireland is now seeking up to $8 million in compensation from the state for the decades taken from his life, and the horrors he experienced, as a result of his wrongful conviction. You can read the detailed Damages Analysis that tells the whole tragic story and which was prepared by my friend Bill Bloss here.

Awful as it is, Ireland’s story is not an uncommon one. The 2008 wrongful conviction compensation law under which Ireland is seeking compensation was passed in response to another high profile injustice, and there are currently more than a dozen claims pending before the commissioner tasked with determining the amounts that should be paid to the innocent men and women who lost years of their lives in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Nationwide, the New York-based Innocence Project reports that since 1989, 316 wrongful convictions have been thrown out because of DNA evidence that conclusively tied someone other than the person convicted to the crime. Many experts believe the number of wrongfully convicted individuals is significantly higher.

Though Ireland was arrested when he was 18 years-old, he was 16 at the time the murder at issue was committed. Had he been interrogated by police at that age, it would have been even more likely that he would have been wrongfully convicted. While there are many reasons juvenile defendants are more likely to be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, the main cause of such injustices are false confessions obtained as the result of intimidating or manipulative interrogation tactics that police regularly use on adult suspects.

False Confessions by Teenagers

While false confessions are often elicited from adults as well as juveniles, a 2005 study of 340 exonerations found that juvenile exonerees were three times as likely as adults to have given a false confession. An analysis of exonerations from 1989 to 2004 found that 42 percent of exonerations of juveniles involved false confessions at the time of the crime, compared with 13 percent of false confessions involved in adult exonerations. The analysis also found that among 12-15 year-olds, 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit.

People often are bewildered as to why anyone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, but the pressure and manipulation used by police is clearly the issue. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 2009, “There is mounting empirical evidence that these pressures [associated with custodial police interrogation] can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed.” As to why juveniles are even more susceptible to false confessions, the reason is often deceptively simple: “Teenagers are good at making bad decisions.” So says Todd Warner, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia who recently completed a study about how the teenage mind is particularly susceptible to the harsh interrogation tactics used by police.

Warner noted that the still developing brains of teenagers make them more impressionable, vulnerable, suggestible to authority figures, and more likely to value short-term gain over long-term consequences, such as reasoning that if I just tell the police what they want to hear, I can go home.

Warner found that notwithstanding the developmental differences between adults and juveniles and the vulnerabilities of young people facing harsh interrogations the vast majority of police reported using the same interrogation techniques they use on adults with juveniles in their custody.

Warner also found that only about 20 percent of police officers receive any training regarding adolescent development and less than half receive training on how to assess a young suspect’s comprehension of their Miranda rights. In fact, a lack of understanding as to their rights has led to about 90 percent of teenagers waiving their Miranda rights according to a separate study. Luckily, Connecticut has some safeguards in place to protect juveniles from unknowingly waiving their rights. For children under 16, the child’s parent must be present at the time and both the child and the parent must be informed of the child’s Miranda rights, though not in modified child-friendly language. Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. 46b-137(b).

Recommendations to Reduce Number of False Juvenile Confessions

So what can be done? Warner recommends that the interrogation techniques used by police as to juveniles in their custody be changed and that better training needs to be provided. Among his specific recommendations:

  • Officers should receive training in adolescent brain development to gain a better understanding of how they think and rationalize differently from adults.
  • They should not use fabricated evidence or other forms of deceit to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of the developing brain.
  • All interrogations should be videotaped to protect the integrity of the evidence.
  • Current lie-detection techniques should not be used because many studies show that attempts to determine whether someone is lying based on eye contact and body language are wrong half the time. “Other methods work better,” Warner said, “such as using techniques that increase cognitive load, including having a suspect tell what happened in reverse order.”

Whether it be juveniles pressured into false confessions, adults convicted on the basis of false testimony (as was the case with Mr. Ireland), or any other miscarriage of justice that results in innocent people going to prison, we should all support any measure that can reduce the likelihood of this tragedy happening to anyone else.

This article has been prepared by Nugent & Bryant for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.