Editorial: Teenage Confessions; Age Group Is Vulnerable to Abuse
Anyone with working knowledge of the teenage brain — parents, say — probably will not be shocked by new data suggesting that juveniles are far more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit than are adults. Impulsiveness and the desire for short-term gratification so typical of teenagers may make them particularly vulnerable to suggestion or coercion during interrogation.
Just how vulnerable can be inferred from a new database being assembled by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, which collected information on 1,155 individuals who were wrongly convicted and later exonerated in the past 25 years. According to The Wall Street Journal, the data show that 38 percent of exonerations for crimes for which juveniles were wrongly convicted involved false confessions. The comparable rate for adults was 11 percent.
That particular statistic probably resonates with those who have seen Ken Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five, which was screened in the Upper Valley earlier this year. It focuses on five teenagers who falsely confessed under duress to the horrifying rape and beating of a 28-year-old woman who was jogging in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. After spending years in prison, they were exonerated and set free after a serial rapist already in custody confessed to the crime in 2002, a confession that was bolstered by DNA evidence.
Their case was sensational because of the widely publicized circumstances surrounding it, but hardly unusual. The Wall Street Journal recounted several others, including that of Daniel Taylor, who spent 20 years behind bars after confessing at age 17 to a double murder in Chicago in 1992 that he did not commit. Taylor said that he confessed in order to get police to refrain from hitting him in the side with a flashlight. “I just wanted to make it stop,” he said.
Of course, physical coercion does not elicit false confessions only from juveniles. But leading questions, promises of leniency, deception and long interrogations may be more likely to produce them in that age group. The International Association of Chiefs of Police recognized this and made a series of recommendations last year on how juvenile interrogations should be conducted. And a bill pending in the California Legislature would require that all interrogations of juvenile murder suspects be videotaped so they could be shown to judges and juries.
If the point of questioning is to arrive at the truth, not merely to obtain an admission of guilt, then there can be no serious objection to this — although some California law enforcement agencies are nonetheless objecting. The mere act of videotaping should deter abuses, and if they do occur, review of the recordings at trial should serve as another check in the criminal justice system.
Powerful new technologies have yielded deep insights in recent years into the teenage brain and its development. The chief one, perhaps, upsets long-held assumptions about brain maturation. It turns out that in key ways, the brain does not resemble that of an adult until a person reaches the early 20s, with the parts of the brain responsible for “adult behavior” — planning ahead and controlling impulses, for instance — being among the last to mature, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These insights ought to inform the whole range of society’s attitudes to the sometimes frustrating, often inexplicable actions of young people. Teenagers are not, it is clear, just younger versions of adults, but emotionally, mentally and intellectually on the way from one place to somewhere quite different. To ignore this fact is to do a real disservice to our children.