The requirement that law enforcement must issue Miranda warnings to suspects in custody prior to interrogating them is well-understood and ingrained in our culture. The question of when a suspect is in custody, however, is less straightforward.
On June 16, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of J.D.B. v. North Carolina, holding that law enforcement must consider a suspect’s age in the Miranda custody calculus. As was the reality in almost 20% of its cases this term, the court was split 5-4. The majority, led by Justice Sotomayor saw no reason to ignore the “commonsense reality” that children may feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult would not. Justice Alito’s dissent was guided by the principle that law enforcement needs the clarity of a bright line rule.
The majority and dissent did agree on one important point: juveniles are significantly more likely than adults to succumb to the intense pressure of custodial interrogations by making involuntary and false confessions.
Indeed, Justice Sotomayor noted “the heightened risk of false confessions from youth,” while Justice Alito would “not dispute that many suspects who are under 18 will be more susceptible to police pressure than the average adult.” For a court that so rarely agrees on anything, the recognition that custodial interrogation can cause juveniles to confess at an increased rate should not be overlooked.
Custodial interrogation is a systematic, intense process designed to persuade the accused that it would be in their best interest to confess. The process can be so powerful that, even when the police use these tactics on innocent suspects, it may result in a confession. Studies demonstrate that false confessions play a role in anywhere from 15-25% of wrongful convictions. When parsing the date more closely, it is revealed that false confessions are almost twice as likely when the wrongfully convicted was a teenager or child.
Two cases currently playing out in Illinois illustrate the problem of false confessions from youth. Five teenagers in the Englewood section of Chicago confessed to a brutal murder and rape of a prostitute in November 1994. Recent DNA testing has revealed, however, that the true perpetrator of this heinous crime is a serial murderer named Johnny Douglas.
And just two years earlier and several miles further south in Dixmoor, IL, three young teenagers falsely confessed to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Their false confessions, which resulted in not only their convictions but those of two other teenagers, allowed the true killer –- a 32-year-old convicted rapist and armed robber named Willie Randolph –- to continue to walk the streets for the last twenty years, during which time he committed at least half a dozen other felonies. (To learn more about the Englewood Five and Dixmoor Five, see www.cwcy.org.)
The best way to prevent false confessions from juveniles is to assure they have counsel during interrogation. As recognized by many commentators, the J.D.B. decision may do little to curb interrogations of juveniles, as studies continue to show that juveniles lack the ability to understand or invoke their Miranda rights.
The best practice, therefore, is to not give kids the choice and require the presence of counsel. Short of that, law enforcement must videotape interviews and interrogations of all children from start to finish. Transparency in the entire process is the only way courts can be reasonably expected to evaluate truth from fiction.
Joshua Tepfer is Project Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University School of Law. Founded in 2008, the CWCY is the only project in the world focused on children’s particular susceptibility to making false confessions and being wrongfully convicted. Tepfer is the author of several articles on the subject, including the recently published "Arresting Development: Conviction of Innocent Youth," in the Rutgers Law Review. He also co-authored an amicus brief in support of J.D.B. on behalf of the CWCY, which was cited favorably by Justice Sotomayor in the majority opinion.
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