The trouble with interrogating minors

Scenes from Michael Crowe's interrogation

Scenes from Michael Crowe’s interrogation

We know from organizations like the Innocence Project that coerced or false confessions are a major contributor to wrongful convictions. The Project’s site states the following: “In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.”

But why would someone who is innocent of a crime confess to doing it? This is the question that everyone considers when they first learn that a person has made an incriminating statement and then later claims it was coerced.

What kind of person admits to committing a crime they did not do?

It is a good question that requires analysis of the psychology behind police interrogations and the systematic breakdown of a person’s resolve. The trouble is that people who are innocent are just as susceptible to the incredible strain placed on a person during the process as those that are guilty of having committed a crime. Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable as evidenced by the case of Michael Crowe.

In 1998, 12  year old Stephanie Crowe was found stabbed to death in her bedroom. Police quickly focused their investigation on Stephanie’s 14 year old brother, Michael. His interrogation lasted for 27 hours, conducted over the course of three days. Two of Michael’s friends also made incriminating statements to police – one of which was a confession. Michael confessed to having murdered his sister as well, though DNA evidence later showed the crime was committed by a transient named Richard Tuite.

Police used an interrogation technique known as the Reid Technique in Michael’s case. This is a popular method of interrogating individuals police feel may be involved in a crime. The approach consists of two separate stages and is discussed in a brief filed on behalf of Damien Echols, prior to his accepting an Alford Plea that allowed him to walk off death row in Arkansas. Echols, along with two other teenagers at the time, were convicted of murdering three children in West Memphis, Arkansas. Though confessions given by one of the teenagers, Jessie Misskelley, were never admitted into evidence during the joint trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, they were credited with influencing the jury because the foreman knew about the confession and purportedly told the other jurors about it.

Misskelley’s statements to police were problematic because initially they did not match the facts of the case. In his first incriminating statement to police he indicated the murders happened in the morning, which was impossible since all three children attended school that day and various sightings of the boys were reported to police up until approximately 7 p.m. the evening they disappeared. Examination of the statement provides clear examples of the police influencing changes made by Misskelley, ranging from the time the crime was allegedly committed to other critical elements.

The first stage of the Reid Technique contains three steps. First, the officers separate the suspect from family and friends. Typically the interrogation is done in a small, uncomfortable space that increases feelings of pressure and vulnerability. Second, the person or people conducting the interrogation accuse the suspect of being untruthful. It is not unusual for police using this approach to refuse to hear what the suspect is saying and to continually express the belief the suspect is guilty of the crime. Third, the police often tell the suspect they have physical or other types of evidence implicating them in the crime. Sometimes an officer will refrain from outright lying and will ask questions like, “If I told you that we found your fingerprints on the weapon used, what would your explanation be for that?”

The second stage kicks the process up several notches. First, after the suspect has been interrogated at length and led to believe that the police will not hear of their innocence, they are told there might be a way out of the situation. The suspect is essentially advised of any benefits of confessing to the crime. For example, a confession will put an end to the interrogation. An officer might even offer sympathy, saying something like this: “I can understand if you just reached the end of your rope and you lost your temper. Sometimes accidents happen.”

This coincides with the second crucial step, which is to minimize the involvement of the suspect.

“You didn’t mean to do it.”

“We know this is not the kind of person you are.”

“You only witnessed someone else committing the crime.”

“You didn’t want to participate.”

The final step consists of explaining that a confession is the only way out and is in their best interest. Keep in mind that these two stages go on for hours. The suspect’s resolve is broken down in carefully calculated steps. It is all dependent on the interrogator’s ability to convince the suspect that relief will only come from offering a confession.

Children and teenagers are especially susceptible to the above-described conditions. Many youth, when in the presence of authority, feel a responsibility to cooperate and assist with the investigation. Few realize they have the right to do otherwise, even when that is expressed to them during the reading of their Miranda rights. Children and teenagers are taught to not only act respectfully in the presence of law enforcement, but to trust them as well.

The issue of interrogating minors has surfaced once again because of the Cristian Fernandez case. Cristian was 12 years old when he was charged in the death of his younger brother. The child’s defense is asking the judge to suppress two statements he made to police on the grounds he did not understand his rights when he gave them, and he was not cognizant of the consequences of giving such statements.

He is charged with felony murder (aggravated child abuse and murder), which despite his young age could carry a life without parole sentence if the judge deems it appropriate. Previously, when State Attorney Angela Corey sought the indictment for this charge, it was the only sentence Cristian could receive if convicted per Florida’s mandatory minimum requirements. Unless he accepted a plea deal.

Cristian originally said his brother fell off a bunk bed. He later claimed he pushed his brother into a bookshelf. Upon injuring his brother, the adolescent told his mother about his brother’s injuries and the mother waited – for unknown reasons – approximately eight hours to seek help for her unconscious and bleeding son. That decision may have cost her youngest child his life, but little has been made public about the reasoning behind waiting. News reports have indicated she spent much of this time on the Internet, researching head injuries and engaging in other activities.

Cristian is also charged with sexual battery because of a statement his younger brother – 4 or 5 at the time of the alleged incident – made to another person. Only a partial transcript of the interrogation regarding this charge is available; however, it causes confusion as to what the young child was referring to when he made the statement. The transcript is troubling, and not for the reasons Angela Corey and the other prosecutors she now has working on his case would have you believe.

Then there is the fact Cristian has been sexually and physically abused throughout his life. His mother gave birth to him when she was the same age he was when charged with murder. His father has had little to nothing to do with him. Prior to the murder, Cristian’s stepfather took his own life by shooting himself in the head. Cristian was not present when this happened, but his other siblings were. The youngest was covered in blood and trembling when police responded to the incident. The stepfather is believed to have committed suicide to avoid prosecution in connection with badly beating Cristian.

In a recent turn of events, the psychologist who was originally contracted by State Attorney Corey became a witness for the defense. This was in light of his determination that Cristian did not sufficiently understand what it meant to waive his rights. The same psychologist had previously provided Angela Corey with a detailed assessment of Cristian, combined with the finding that despite his troubling past, the accused was amenable to treatment and would respond well to intensive inpatient therapy.

Then there is the matter of lost evidence. On June 28th, the prosecution called various people to the stand to testify regarding the explanation of rights to Cristian and his understanding of those rights before he made statements to police. The prosecution asked to call his previous public defenders to the stand to question them about their visits with the child. The attorneys were protected by client-attorney privilege, but the judge did allow them to provide information about the number of times they visited their client.

Why? Because the Department of Juvenile Justice apparently lost or misplaced that information.

Detective Soehling questioned Cristian and testified that she made “technical” mistakes in her reports. She even admitted to destroying her reports, giving no reason for having done it. The detective had not received formal training with regard to questioning juveniles and though she claimed he understood his rights, she offered no evidence or testimony that supported she had the training and experience to recognize when a child understands their legal rights. She did not individually expound on any of the rights, or ask Cristian to paraphrase them in a way that would indicate understanding.

Cristian was not given guidance or advice from any adult outside of law enforcement. He was on his own when he was questioned. The state’s original psychologist is claiming he did not understand his rights. The case already reflected badly on Angela Corey when she became angry at those who questioned her approach. She refuses to consider that 189,000 people have signed my petition asking her to reverse her decision to try him as an adult. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise that she would pursue, with gusto, the prosecution of George Zimmerman – the Florida man accused of committing second degree murder against a 17 year old teenager named Trayvon Martin. What kind of picture does this newest information paint of Corey’s prosecution of am adolescent?

But that is what Angela Corey does. She throws the book at people. While this might be considered a positive attribute in some cases, it becomes a liability in others when she refuses to acknowledge the clear differences between juveniles and adults. It becomes an issue when she refuses to consider potentially mitigating factors in each individual case.

On the second day of the hearing regarding the suppression of statements, the defense called child psychiatrist David Fassler to the stand. Dr. Fassler testified that Cristian did not understand his rights and provided information about the advanced scientific understanding of human brain development in adolescents. He has lectured on these types of matters at Yale, Harvard, and before Congress.

If Judge Cooper agrees to suppress the statements made by Cristian Fernandez, it will significantly weaken the prosecution’s cases against the defendant. It remains to be seen if she will take this action. Cristian’s case is just one more that emphasizes the dangers and problems associated with interrogating minor children. This is an area of the American legal system that requires significant reform, especially if courts continue to try and sentence children as adults.

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Florida legislators acknowledge a need for change

The Florida Times Union published an article today describing the sentiments of some of its state legislators with regard to the 10-20-life statutes. Some of you may have become familiar with these laws because of Marissa Alexander’s case. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey sought this punishment for Marissa after she fired what has been described as a “warning shot” into the wall of the family home. Marissa claimed she did so in self-defense. She was charged with three counts of aggravated assault (with a deadly weapon), convicted, and sentenced to the mandatory penalty of 20 years because she had been charged with domestic battery four months before the incident.

The penalty has been a major point of contention across the state, emphasizing some very problematic aspects of Florida legislation. Marissa’s case is just one example of how these statutes are used, however.  Another case has received far less attention, but is perhaps one of the most unjust applications of the law in recent times.

Ronald Thompson is 65 years old. He served his country for 14 years as an Army veteran. He has many chronic health conditions, including diabetes, vision problems, and heart disease. He was charged with four counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2009 after having fired his gun into the ground to scare off teenagers who were involved in a heated argument with Thompson’s grandmother. He did not injure anyone. It does not appear he was intending to injure anyone. However, the jury convicted him of all counts and he was sentenced to the mandatory penalty of 20 years in prison.

Thompson will die in prison as a result of this if nothing changes – a man who served America for well over a decade.

Guess who we have to thank for the charges? Florida State Attorney Angela Corey. Again. If you ask her why she is doing this to people she will probably say it is because she has a duty to follow the law. Indeed, she does. However, she also has discretion when it comes to when and how she charges people. We have seen this with her handling of Marissa Alexander’s case and the case of 13 year old Cristian Fernandez, who was 12 when charged with felony murder which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

All of this brings me to the point of this article, which is that Florida state legislators recognize the state has unjust legislation. The Florida Times Union polled 14 of the legislators and determined that 11 expressed a willingness to “re-examine the laws for ways to improve them”.

So when will they get around to doing this? Representative Audrey Gibson went so far as to say that failure to re-examine these harmful laws is a “dereliction of duty.” She criticized the task force’s activity (or lack thereof) with regard to the now infamous Stand your Ground legislation.

Representative Mia Jones stated she was against mandatory minimums across the board. This tells me there are representatives who know the legislation is immoral and unethical, but have not yet taken action to change it.

It means they will be amenable to changing or repealing the felony murder rule as well.

Since there is no apparent action to change these laws as of yet, this means we must demand the changes before the laws claim more casualties. You can begin by requesting the elimination of the felony murder rule in Florida. You don’t need to live in Florida to sign the petition either.

You may also write to the Florida state representatives and demand action. Enough is enough. They say they know that change is needed. They say they are willing to re-examine bad law.

Tell them that words are not enough. Words are nothing without action.

Contact Florida’s House Speaker, Dean Cannon, here:

Email him by clicking here.

The Honorable Dean Cannon, Speaker
Florida House of Representatives
420 The Capitol
402 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

Tell representatives Audrey Gibson and Mia Jones to take action to end these unjust laws once and for all.

Email Audrey Gibson: gibson.audrey.web@flsenate.gov

Email Mia Jones by clicking here.

More information on contacting representatives is here.

It only takes a couple of minutes to speak your mind and make a difference. Please do it and encourage others to do the same.

Why abolish the felony murder rule?

Cristian Fernandez and Curtis Shuler

Cristian Fernandez and Curtis Shuler

Some laws in this country sound really good on paper and make sense in theory. However, when a number of these laws are applied to real life situations they become incredibly unjust. The felony murder law is an example of such legislation.

In a previous post I outlined some of the people in America who have been negatively impacted by the felony murder rule as juveniles. To reiterate, this law gives prosecutors the ability to hold all parties involved in circumstances leading to a murder accountable to the fullest extent of the law. At first, this sounds reasonable enough. If two or more people commit a burglary and someone is murdered in the process both people must be held accountable right? Most would agree that makes sense.

What if you were 20 years old and you spent a night drinking and partying, only to be awaken by a roommate at some point, asking if they could borrow your car to go steal some weed from someone? Now imagine that you had loaned your car many times to the same person, you’re too hung over to really think about what they are saying, and you give permission for them to take the car again. You then go back to sleep.

Your roommate takes some friends and drives about a mile away to steal marijuana from a man who sells it. During the attempted robbery, the 18 year old daughter of the weed dealer is murdered. The men who committed the crime are apprehended and then the next thing you know you are being charged with felony murder.

You cannot imagine you will be convicted because you never had any idea a murder would occur and you had loaned your car to your roommate in the past without negative consequences. You figure that if you are guilty of anything it is of knowing that the roommates might steal some marijuana.

Regardless of this you are charged with the crimes associated with both the robbery and the murder. After all, it was your car they used to participate in the crime. No car, no crime, the prosecutor tells you. But what about the marijuana? If the dealer hadn’t kept weed in his house the crime wouldn’t have occurred either, right? That’s not how the prosecutor sees it though.

You do not believe you will be convicted of felony murder. It is equated with first degree murder in terms of sentencing and first degree murder involves malice and premeditation. You never intended for anyone to die because you never knew the murder would take place to begin with. You weren’t even there. Surely you will not be convicted and sentenced as if you had been there, and were as culpable as the person who committed the murder.

However, when presented with the information a jury finds that you were culpable in the robbery because you loaned your car to the person who committed it. The jury does not have to find you guilty of first degree murder because you are facing felony murder where your involvement in the robbery, no matter how minimal, makes you just as culpable as the person who murdered the 18 year old girl.

You are convicted and sentenced to life without parole. You now reside in a Florida prison, where you will remain for the rest of your life unless something significant happens to change your fate.

Which is unlikely.

The above sounds unrealistic, right? It sounds like something I made up. It isn’t though. The above is what happened to 20 year old Ryan Holle in 2003. He received a life without parole sentence for his role in a murder he never even knew would happen. The prosecutor could have taken him to court on a lesser charge, but he chose not to do it.

This is why the felony murder rule is dangerous. Prosecutors abuse this law. Juveniles and young adults across the country have experienced the consequences of this unjust legislation, ranging from Cristian Fernandez who was charged with felony murder at age 12 and will receive life without parole if convicted at trial to Curtis Shuler who was charged at 16. Curtis was sentenced to life without parole for a murder that the two other convicted perpetrators have since said he did not do. They both say he was not even there.

Those who support the felony murder rule say it acts as a deterrent. I disagree. In my effort to raise awareness about Cristian Fernandez’s case I have encountered countless people who have no understanding of how Florida’s mandatory minimums work. Many do not understand that if convicted, the judge will have no choice in Cristian’s case but to sentence him to life without parole. The felony murder rule in Florida requires a person to receive life in prison without parole or the death penalty. At 12, Cristian was too young to receive the death penalty.

How can a law act as a deterrent if people in this country do not even understand it or how it works? It simply can’t.

There are mechanisms in place to punish people for their role in a crime. The felony murder rule is completely unnecessary and provides prosecutors like Florida State Attorney Angela Corey with the legal ability to obtain life without parole sentences for children and teenagers.

It has to stop. Melissa Shuler is Curtis’s wife. She has been fighting tirelessly for her husband for a long time. We decided to join forces in working toward abolishing the felony murder rule, beginning in Florida where some of the more egregious injustices have occurred, and continue to occur, because of it.

We are asking for fair justice. Smart justice. The felony murder doctrine is neither.

Please join us in our effort. We will be campaigning in a variety of ways over time to end this unjust law and bring attention to its casualties.

Ways to Help:

Join us in our effort by signing the petition to end the felony murder law in Florida by clicking here.

You can join our event on facebook here.

Please share the petition with friends and other people who will help us raise awareness and express to Florida legislators that we would like to join states like Michigan, Kentucky, and Hawaii in eliminating this legislation.

Learn More:

This website outlines information about the legislation: http://felonymurder.org/

Watch the documentary “Reckless Indifference” to learn about Brandon Hein and how the felony murder rule affected several teenagers in California. Netflix offer this documentary in the streaming version as well as on DVD.

Watch “Unequal Justice” online here and learn about another example of how the felony murder rule has failed to produce appropriate justice.