Why Young People Falsely Confess to Police

"I said I did it but I didn't do it," the 11-year-old convicted murderer told me when I first met him in January of 1995. "Why did you confess to murdering your 83-year-old neighbor," I asked the boy, "if you didn't do it?"

The boy's response chilled me to the bone: "They told me that God would forgive me, that they found my fingerprints on the knife, and that I could go home to my brother's birthday party if I just said I did it." It took me nearly a decade to get the boy's murder conviction vacated, but I am still haunted by his words.

In the nearly fifteen years since that fateful meeting, I have seen dozens of cases in which youthful defendants have falsely confessed to murder and other heinous crimes. Whether it's the West Memphis Three (Arkansas), the Central Park Jogger Five and Marty Tankleff cases (New York City), Lacresha Murray (Texas), or the Ryan Harris case (Illinois), or any of the many other children whose cases have not captured national attention, all have one thing in common: their confessions were unreliable, wrung from children by police officers using sophisticated tactics designed to manipulate guilty adults into confessing but which when used on innocent children often lead them to falsely confess.

Over the years, I've seen police lie to children in all manner of ways, telling them they had failed lie detector tests, telling one child that his dead sister's blood was found in his bedroom and a different boy that his father had awakened from a coma after a shot of adrenaline and told police the boy was his assailant. I've seen detectives suggest to children they can go home if they just confess, promise that they will "go to bat" for them when their cases go to court, and that only they can make sure the children get the "help" they need instead of going to prison.

And it's not just juvenile suspects who have given false statements under police pressure. Earlier this year, 30-year-old Thaddeus Jimenez walked out of an Illinois prison into my arms after serving over 16 years for a murder he did not commit. Arrested at age 13, Jimenez is the rare child who refused to confess when interrogated. But it didn't matter. Chicago police officers pressured a 14-year-old eyewitness to identify Jimenez. The very same tactics used to obtain false confessions from suspects also produce false identifications from witnesses and even crime victims.

I've seen too many parents shed tears over their decision to let police interview their children alone while they sat in the lobby or, even worse, sat next to their children and pressured them along with the police. These parents have had to carry with them the guilt of their complicity as their children have grown up behind bars.

To prevent such tragedies from recurring, courts or legislatures can start by mandating that all interviews of children be electronically recorded, whether the child is a victim, a witness, or a suspect. Recording has been a "best practice" when interviewing child victims for years and needs to be universally applied. Without such recordings, it cannot be known whether the police coerced the child into confessing or whether the statement is the child's account or an agreed-to version of a pre-conceived story told by the child's interrogators.

Parents must be better informed but this alone will not protect children from falsely confessing. In cases or where children face adult punishments and perhaps others, children need to be given access to lawyers.

Merely reading a child his Miranda rights must not be enough to admit the child's confession. Miranda rights need to be rewritten in language that children can understand, explained to them and their parents patiently, and officers must ask the child and parent to explain what each right means in their own words.

Finally, police and experts must design new techniques for interviewing children, techniques that lessen the chance of false confessions without reducing the frequency of true confessions.

My colleagues and I are tired of having our dreams haunted by these cases. On Oct. 8, 2009, we are launching the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth ("CWCY"), the first project solely devoted to representing and advocating for wrongly convicted youth. The CWCY is a joint project of the law school's renowned Center on Wrongful Convictions and Children and Family Justice Center.

The launch at Northwestern's law school will feature a panel discussion and statements from several juvenile exonerees, including Marty Tankleff, who spent 19 years in prison before being exonerated of his parents' murders, Barney Brown, who spent 38 years in a Florida prison for a rape before he was declared innocent and released, and Bruce Lisker, who was exonerated only a few weeks ago after spending 26 years in a California prison for the murder of his mother.

Please join us. With your support, the CWCY hopes to increase the accuracy of all youthful convictions -- the innocent and the guilty -- by insisting upon reliable evidence.

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

For more information about this event, please visit the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth's website, or contact Toni Curtis at e-curtis@law.northwestern.edu.