The Truth About Juvenile False Confessions

Photo courtesy of Between The Lines, Ashley Nellis.

Photo courtesy of Between The Lines, Ashley Nellis.


American Bar Association, Winter 2016, by Megan Crane, Laura Nirider & Steven A. Drizin. 

L et’s start with a thought experiment. Picture yourself as a thirteen-year-old boy, sitting in your middle school in the midst of class. Without warning, your principal enters your classroom, tells you to come with him, and brings you to a small room in the school’s front office. There, three police officers—each wearing a holstered gun—are waiting for you. One officer leaves the room and closes the door behind him, but the detective, the sergeant, and the principal remain in the room with you. They sit you down. They surround you.

The detective reads you the Miranda rights and immediately proceeds to accuse you of inappropriately touching your neighbor’s three-year-old sister. She does not ask if you did this. Instead, she says that she knows you did this; she has no doubt of your guilt because the evidence proves it; and now you just need to help yourself by telling her the truth. (In reality, this detective has no evidence; she has not conducted any investigation and has no reliable reason to presume your guilt.)

Shocked, you respond by stammering out the truth: you did not inappropriately touch that little girl. In fact, you say this over ten times. The detective refuses to listen and tells you that if you take a lie detector test, it will “come back deceptive because you’re lying.” Her accusations become increasingly specific and more detailed, providing you with her exact theory about how the alleged crime occurred. When you start crying, she tells you that the only way you can help yourself is to confess.

***

This story may shock you—and it should. The tactics used by police to steamroll a child into confessing to a crime can offend our most basic notions of fairness and justice, not to mention the presumption of innocence that our criminal justice system is supposed to provide. But, while shocking, the sad truth is that this story is all too common. 

Read the full article here.