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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