“It’s like having an 18- wheeler driving on your chest and you believe that the only way to get that weight off your chest is to tell the police whatever they want to hear … even admitting to a murder.” – Marty Tankleff describing the police interrogation that brought about his false confession and conviction, when he was a juvenile.
More than two decades later, juvenile police interrogations are still a wretched procedure. Only recently has light been shed on the coercive, deceptive tactics used by U.S. police departments to get kids to waive their Constitutional rights and fess up, whether they did the crime or not.
“At the outset, interrogators isolate the suspect from family or support, during which time they repeatedly challenge any claims of innocence by accusing the suspect of lying and exuding unwavering confidence in his guilt. When the suspect feels hopelessly trapped, interrogators offer confession as a carrot. Through a process scholars call minimization, interrogators indicate that the benefits of confessing outweigh the costs of maintaining innocence.” – NACDL
A study of juvenile interrogations at 17 police departments found that none of the suspects had attorneys present during questioning, and only 21% had parents present. All of them had already waived their Miranda rights. This does not happen by accident; it is a deliberate setup by the cops.
Interrogation is a calculated, manipulative, nine-step procedure known as the Reid Technique. The goal is to heighten anxiety and wear away one’s ability to defend oneself. Loaded questions, implicit assumptions of guilt, and even fabricated evidence are used. Interrogators are trained to recognize and exploit verbal, non-verbal, and paralinguistic behavior in order to gain a confession.
A prime tactic is to attack the suspect’s confidence in their own memory. At the right moment, when the subject is exhibiting self-doubt, the interrogator will suggest the kid was blacked out or in a “dream state” at the time of the crime.
While these techniques are banned for use on juveniles in many European countries, in the U.S. there is no such reluctance. A University of Virginia study confirmed this, finding that nearly all of the interrogators they surveyed used the same techniques on minors and adults alike. They were basically untrained cops who knew nothing about adolescent psychology or Miranda comprehension.
“More than 90 percent of juvenile suspects waive their Miranda rights and begin talking after an arrest. Because they are young and the areas of the brain responsible for executive function are undeveloped, they are more likely than adults to make impulsive decisions, are more suggestible to authority figures, and weigh short-term gains, such as leaving the interrogation room, over long-term consequences, [like] remaining in custody.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) believes the problem is so bad that they formally recommended that “…all law enforcement interrogations of felony suspects be videotaped in their entirety and from a neutral angle that focuses equally on the suspect and the interrogator.”
To top it off, the APA notes that “…law enforcement officers often close their investigations after a criminal suspect confesses, even in cases where the confession is inconsistent, contradicted by evidence or coerced.”
Now we begin to understand why 42% of juvenile wrongful convictions involve false confessions. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that interrogation tactics can elicit false confessions at a “frighteningly high rate.”
The 2011 ruling in J.D.B. v. North Carolina laid the groundwork for challenging the disgraceful state of juvenile interrogations, essentially saying that a police officer must consider a suspect’s age during questioning. Whether or not this has any effect in the interrogation room remains to be seen.