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False Confessions by Juveniles: New Study Proposes Changes to Prevent Grave Injustices

Earlier this year, Daniel Villegas of El Paso was released after 18 years in prison. Villegas lost almost two decades of his life after being convicted of two murders he did not commit; a conviction that was based largely on a false confession he made when he was 16 years-old. He made that confession after hours of abusive and aggressive police interrogation tactics that left him psychologically battered and during which time he never spoke to an attorney or even his parents.

Sadly, stories like Villegas’ are all too common, in Texas and across the country. Wrongful convictions of juveniles based largely if not exclusively on false confessions are an epidemic. In a 2005 study of 340 exonerations, researchers found that juvenile exonerees were three times as likely as adults to have given a false confession. An analysis of exonerations from 1989 to 2004 found that 42 percent of exonerations of juveniles involved false confessions at the time of the crime, compared with 13 percent of false confessions involved in adult exonerations. The analysis also found that among 12-15 year-olds, 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit.

Vulnerable Teenagers

“Teenagers are good at making bad decisions.” This fairly obvious point was recently made by Todd Warner, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia. The bad decisions Warner was specifically referring to are the choices made by juveniles who find themselves facing the kind of intimidating or manipulative interrogations that police regularly use on adult suspects to elicit incriminating information or, as is way too often the case, coerce false confessions.

The nature of the teenage mind – impressionable, vulnerable, suggestible to authority figures and more likely to value short-term gain over long-term consequences – is a primary reason for this increased rate of false or coerced confessions among juveniles. Notwithstanding the developmental differences between adults and juveniles and the vulnerabilities of young people facing harsh interrogations, a study Warner recently conducted found that the vast majority of police reported using the same interrogation techniques they use on adults with juveniles in their custody. He also found that only about 20 percent of police officers receive any training regarding adolescent development and less than half receive training on how to assess a young suspect’s comprehension of their Miranda rights.

Lack of Understanding of Miranda Rights

In fact, a lack of understanding as to their rights has led to about 90 percent of teenagers waiving their Miranda rights according to a separate study. This can of course have devastating consequences for the juvenile. Luckily, Texas has some enhanced protections for juveniles as to any waiver of their constitutional rights during custodial interrogations (Tex. Fam. Code Ann, 51.09; 51.095) but this is hardly enough to prevent police from engaging in the techniques that lead to so many false confessions.

Recommendations to Reduce Number of False Juvenile Confessions

The interrogation techniques used by police as to juveniles in their custody need to be changed and better training needs to be provided, according to Warner’s study. Among his recommendations:

  • Officers should receive training in adolescent brain development to gain a better understanding of how they think and rationalize differently from adults.
  • They should not use fabricated evidence or other forms of deceit to capitalize on the vulnerabilities of the developing brain.
  • All interrogations should be videotaped to protect the integrity of the evidence. (Texas does not require that interrogations be recorded. Confessions are usually taped, but not the questioning that leads up to them.)
  • Current lie-detection techniques should not be used because many studies show that attempts to determine whether someone is lying based on eye contact and body language are wrong half the time. “Other methods work better,” Warner said, “such as using techniques that increase cognitive load, including having a suspect tell what happened in reverse order.”

False confessions that are the result of abuse and intimidation are a travesty whether the victims are juveniles or adults. Given the increased risks to youth of suffering such injustices, it is important that Texas law enforcement and our justice system make every effort to ensure that the kind of tragedy that befell Daniel Villegas doesn’t happen to one more kid.

Mark Diaz – Experienced Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer

When you have been charged with a crime, you need an experienced lawyer who focuses exclusively on defending criminal cases and who will aggressively protect your rights. Throughout my career, I have successfully handled every type of criminal defense case. More importantly, criminal defense is the only thing I do. I have witnessed firsthand how a criminal charge can negatively impact every area of a person’s life. As a lawyer, I consider it a privilege to help people during this stressful time in their lives. Call me today at (409) 515-6170 for a free consultation to discuss your case.

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