False Confession by Teen Prompts Memphis Newspaper to Examine Police Interrogation Tactics

Screenshot 2013-12-27 11.38.37Who would confess to a crime he didn’t commit?

According to a study recently published by the American Psychological Association, a troubling number of people have.  Particularly children.  Researchers found that nearly one-third of  14 to 17-year olds interviewed in the study admitted they gave false confessions. They were all children accused of serious crimes.

In a related report, the National Registry of Exonerations showed that in the last 25 years false confessions were linked to 38% of cases involving children, who were exonerated of serious crimes. That’s compared to 11% in the adult population.

This month, the Shelby County District Attorney’s office dropped charges against a 17-year old boy charged in the murder of a Piperton, Tennessee contractor.  The child had confessed to being the getaway driver, but his defense attorneys maintained his innocence. They continued to press prosecutors to re-examine the charges.  The District Attorney’s office finally determined, after the child spent more than two-months in juvenile detention (including the Thanksgiving holiday away from his family), that the child was wrongly accused.  He was set free.

Memphis’ major metro daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, published a series of articles following the dropped charges.  Three reporters and a highly-respected contributor provided an insightful look into a failing of the justice system.

Note: These stories are behind a paywall.  You must have the password of a Commercial Appeal subscriber to read entire articles.

In the initial story, Commercial Appeal reporter Beth Warren spoke with the 17-year old targeted by investigators. His name matched that of the suspected getaway driver and the teen went to the same school as two other juveniles charged in the crime. But even the two other teens charged in this case said this 17-year old wasn’t involved.

“The teen said two homicide detectives continued to question him, as a third man typed and gave the investigators guidance. He said they didn’t believe his professions of innocence. He can’t remember their names, but said one of them told him he was the getaway driver and would go to prison for at least 50 years for murder. ‘They told me to hug my momma, that I wasn’t going to see her again until I was 69,’ the high school senior said. ‘I started crying then.'”

The boy admitted that he finally “gave in” and repeated details his interrogators had previously told him.

Read the full story here

In a follow-up story, Commercial Appeal reporters Beth Warren and Samantha Bryson examined the prevalence of false confessions and what could be done to prevent them. In the story, the teen provided more details about what led him to say he did it.

“… he felt backed into a corner by three seasoned detectives to say he helped his schoolmates carry out the fatal robbery. He didn’t think to ask for a lawyer or to stop answering questions. Instead, he thought he had just two choices — either admit to driving the getaway car and become a ‘witness’ who can immediately leave police headquarters with his mother or become a defendant and face a life sentence in prison. Joshua Tepfer, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth in Chicago, says such police tactics are common but can lead to a confession from the wrong person. ‘That’s highly coercive — a false promise,’ he said. ‘That clearly can cause someone to falsely confess.'”

In the same article, Gerald Skahan, the head of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Capital Defense Team, is quoted as saying he understands that police must sometimes “push reluctant suspects” to solve crimes.  But he believes videotaping the entire process maintains the integrity of the justice system.

“The obvious thing to me has always been to videotape,” he said. “It protects the police, the prosecution and the defendant and the victim, who I assume doesn’t want the wrong person to go to prison.” – Gerald Skahan, Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

Read the full story here

The Commercial Appeal also published an op-ed piece by Joshua Tepfer, a law professor and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.

“State leaders in Tennessee need to develop policies mandating the recording of interrogations. And Tennessee’s law enforcement officers are in desperate need of training in interrogation procedures. They should immediately engage with organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has developed law enforcement juvenile interrogation training programs.” – Joshua Tepfer, Center for Wrongful Convictions of Youth.

Read the full op-ed piece here

In 2011, Tennessee legislators Rep. Vance Dennis (R-Savannah) and Sen. Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill) introduced a bill that would mandate the recording of all interrogations in their entirety.  The bill didn’t even make it out of the judiciary subcommittee despite compromises to exempt smaller police departments without necessary equipment and an option for audio-only recordings.

“The risk of wrongfully incarcerating someone for years and years and the risk of someone committing a heinous crime getting off … justify recording every interrogation.” – Rep. Vance Dennis (R-Savannah)

In a Commercial Appeal article, Dennis vowed he would reintroduce the bill.  But there has been no activity on this legislation since 2011.

Read this piece by the Commercial Appeal’s Beth Warren about a 12-year old Arkansas boy pushed to confess to the murder of his sister.  The videotaped interrogation showed 37 denials by the boy, who was accused of killing his sister.  After a 3-hour gap in the recording, the boy is shown again on tape, confessing.

The child spent two years behind bars until the Arkansas Supreme Court tossed out the confession. It was determined the boy did not understand his right to an attorney or his right to remain silent.

You can read more about the benefits of recording interrogations from The Innocence Project.