14Mar 2016

Interrogation of juvenile suspects can yield false confessions

A study recently released by the American Bar Association calls for a change in interrogation techniques when dealing with juveniles. The conclusion of the study found that psychological interrogation techniques designed for seasoned adult criminals are commonly used with juveniles. These techniques exploit developmental vulnerabilities relating to judgement and decision making. Juveniles often react with impulsivity, a tendency to be motivated by short-term rewards, and vulnerability to pressure. This can lead to a conclusion that confessing is the easiest way out of a difficult situation, even when the confession is not true.

Many law enforcement officers have been trained in interrogation according to the Reid Technique, developed by John E. Reid and Associates of Chicago Illinois specifically to extract confessions. The company has cautioned that the technique should be used only when authorities are confident the subject is guilty of the crime. It presumes guilt, is highly dependent upon accusation, and is extremely manipulative, especially for younger suspects.

There are three phases to the technique. The first involves watching a suspect’s body language and behavior and interpreting verbal cues during a period of open-ended, nonconfrontational questioning. It has been nicknamed the “human lie detector” because officers are judging guilt or innocence through the observation of the suspect’s behavior. Officers are taught to watch for lack of eye contact, slouching, crossing the arms, and scratching the nose, all of which might indication the person is not being honest. Responses such as “I don’t know” and I can’t remember” are also judged as indications of lying. Understandably, a teen being questioned by adults might act this way simply because he is afraid or nervous, but not guilty of any wrongdoing; however, if the officers take these signs as proof of lying and guilt, they may be taking the first step down the road to wrongful conviction.

The second phase is interrogation. This is when the conversation becomes tougher. The suspect is isolated in a small room, if this has not already been done, to raise anxiety levels. He is then confronted with the crime and relentlessly accused, with officers showing unwavering confidence in his guilt. Authorities reject all claims of innocence made by the suspect and try to make him feel caught. They may lie about evidence that “proves” guilt, even when there is none. Next, they may try to make the subject believe it is okay if there is a rational excuse for the alleged crime. This may include a suggestion that a confession will result in more lenient treatment. Officers often suggest that confessing will actually help the suspect by saying it will make everything “okay”. They may imply that the person will be allowed to go home or get help if they confess. These pressures often overwhelm a juvenile.

The final phase is confession, which is recording by video or in writing. These recordings often show that the interrogators have provided the suspect with “inside information” that only the guilty party would know. Then the details are brought out by the use of leading questions which make it simple for the subject to include the incriminating details into a false–but convincingly believable–confession.

The study concluded that interrogation of children and teens requires special care. Since their brains are not fully developed, they tend to make poorer decisions and be more impulsive, especially when influenced by stress and fear such as that resulting from the Reid Technique. They usually have a limited knowledge of the criminal justice system, which makes it more difficult in weighing potential consequences of making a false confession.

In spite of these cautions, Reid & Associates is now teaching the technique to school administrators in at least twelve states. This is especially problematic since students questioned at school have fewer rights than when they are questioned by law enforcement officials.

The study cautions judges and jurors to be wary of juvenile confessions and demand evidence of the suspect’s guilt beyond any statement made while under interrogation. It also states that teachers would be wise to fight the use of the Reid Technique in their school, and parents should require notification before an administrator interrogates their child.

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