Explaining Juvenile False Confessions: Adolescent Development and Police Interrogation

Article excerpt


In May 1998, sixteen-year-old Allen Chesnet cut his hand while working in his Maryland basement. (1) A reporter noticed Allen's bleeding hand while researching a story on a murder victim who lived nearby. (2) Suspecting Allen's involvement in the murder, the reporter called the police. (3) Allen was questioned, released, and then brought in for additional questioning the following day. (4) The police began by showing Allen photos of the gruesome murder scene. Then, in an attempt to elicit a confession, one of the police officers deceived Allen, faking a telephone call from the state crime laboratory which supposedly confirmed that Allen's DNA matched the DNA of blood found at the crime scene. (5)

Soon afterwards Allen Chesnet confessed and although many of the details of his confession were incorrect, he was charged with murder. (6) A few weeks later, preliminary DNA tests showed that the blood at the crime scene was not Chesnet's and suspicion began to focus on a man about whom police had received a tip just hours after the murder. (7) Nevertheless, Chesnet spent six months in jail before the charges were finally dropped. (8)

The police actions in this case raise many questions, including: Why did police suspicion center on Chesnet? Further, why did he confess to a crime he did not commit? Yet, the Chesnet case is scarcely anomalous; it is just one of a number of recent, well-publicized cases where young people have falsely confessed to serious crimes. (9) These cases, along with research demonstrating the vulnerability of young people to suggestive and deceptive interrogation techniques, suggest that juvenile false confession is a serious problem. (10)

This Article examines the connections between adolescent psychological development, police interrogation, and the false confession phenomenon. Part II discusses evidence supporting the assertion that juvenile false confessions are in fact a major problem. Part III examines the psychological research on adolescent development and the impact that this development can have on an adolescent's decision to waive his or her Miranda rights and on his or her ability to withstand the techniques used by the police to obtain confessions. Finally, Part IV suggests some measures through which juvenile false confessions might be minimized.


A. False Confessions

False confessions, especially by young people, are not new to the criminal justice system, (11) but over the last decades we have begun to learn more about their nature, causes and consequences. (12) With the advent of DNA testing in the 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, lawyers and social scientists have carried out many studies investigating the causes of miscarriages of justice, some of which resulted in wrongful convictions. (13) A few of these studies have attempted to quantify the role that false confessions play in these miscarriages of justice, estimating the proportion as high as 25%. (14) According to these studies, false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. (15) However, since we cannot actually know what percentage of confessions are false, (16) we cannot establish the severity of the false confession problem. Although scholars have systematically examined reported interrogation-induced false confessions, (17) their goal is to demonstrate how and why false confessions occur, not how often they occur. (18)

There are two types of false confession that can be induced through police interrogation: coerced-compliant false confessions and coerced-internalized false confessions. (19) The main difference between them is that in a coerced-compliant false confession, the suspect usually retracts the confession soon after the interrogation is over, (20) while in a coerced-internalized false confession, the suspect comes to believe that he or she actually committed the crime. …