Our Justice System Needs to Protect Children's Human Rights

Children's human rights are being violated every day in police stations and courts across America.   

Youngsters are held in isolation, lied to about police evidence, falsely told that they failed lie-detector tests, that a co-defendant fingered them, that blood or hair samples condemned them.  They are denied access to a lawyer or parent, promised that they can go home or will get leniency if they cooperate.  Police create alternative scenarios in the face of repeated claims of innocence by adolescents, creating a sense of hopelessness and fear.

These unscrupulous -- but lawful -- methods used in the police interrogation of child suspects are taught to law enforcement officials across the country and throughout the globe, but they were designed to be used against adult suspects where the police are confident that they have the right perpetrator.  Instead, they have become standard operating procedure -- a substitute for police investigation and reliable forensic evidence. 

The innocence movement has illustrated that routine police interrogation methods have elicited an outrageously high proportion of false confessions -- coerced confessions given by innocent suspects who quickly recant.  When police use these fraudulent tactics against children, youth, and adolescent suspects, we now know that the likelihood of a false confession is even greater.

Take for example, the case of Anthony Caravella.  In 1984, this 15-year-old Florida boy was in a Miramar police station under arrest for typical adolescent offenses, such as loitering, theft and burglary. But the police had a 'heater' case on their hands.  A 58-year-old woman had been murdered, the apparent victim of a brutal beating and sexual assault.  After hours of interrogation, police emerged with a rambling confession from the youth which he soon recanted.  Yet they threw the book at him, charging him with capital murder and aggressively seeking the death penalty against him.  Fortunately, a jury spared his life and a few weeks ago, after 26 years in prison, Caravella was released after DNA testing excluded him as the rapist.

Or, take this archetypal American narrative of African-American youth and a white woman victim played to a national audience in the Central Park jogger case.  One lovely April night in 1989 an investment banker went jogging in the park where she was raped and bludgeoned, left lying in a coma in the underbrush.  Miraculously, the woman survived, but with no memory of the crime.  Five youngsters, ages 14, 15 and 16, were quickly arrested and charged with gang rape and attempted murder.  They were interrogated over periods of 14 to 28 hours and four confessed on videotape.   The media ran riot: "Wolf Pack's Prey: Packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets, getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence." "Their enemies were rich.  Their enemies were white."

Almost immediately, all five adolescents repudiated their confessions.  DNA testing excluded them as the source of semen found on the jogger's clothing, but they were still tried and convicted, and collectively served over forty years in prison.  But there would be another confession, thirteen years later, from a 31-year-old serial rapist who assaulted women in or near Central Park.  His DNA was a match.   Bedlam again ensued.  To the credit of the district attorney, his year-long investigation concluded that the verdicts should be set aside.  Although police and the individual prosecutors stuck to their story, the court agreed.  The case that became a catalyst for a decade of harsh juvenile sentencing statutes, widespread trial of children in adult criminal courts, and the criminalization of youth -- it was a wrongful conviction of youth.

Human rights require that every child accused of having infringed the penal law has the guarantee not to be compelled to confess guilt, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law. This is the human rights version of our Fifth Amendment constitutional standard which protects witnesses from being forced to incriminate themselves:  no person shall be "compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." These rights represent the critical shift from the widespread use of torture and forced confessions in 16th and 17th Century England, and are popularly known today as Miranda rights or "the right to remain silent" during questioning and at trial.   For children, those innocent and not, this is a critical human right.

Children are constitutional persons, and holders of human rights.  They deserve our best system of justice.  We are launching the new Center on the Wrongful Conviction of Youth ("CWCY") at Northwestern University School of Law this month to insist that police, prosecutors and courts use reliable evidence in cases of youth crime and delinquency. 

The CWCY will enforce children's human rights by reforming the practice of police interrogation of youth, promoting videotaping of police interrogation of youngsters, and litigating and assisting in youth cases where justice was denied.  Children are constitutional persons, and holders of human rights.  They deserve our best system of justice. 

To help launch the CWCY, we made a short video about wrongful convictions of youth. Please watch it and share it with your friends and family.