Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

Questioning the Questions: The Impermissibility of Police Deception in Interrogations of Juveniles

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

Questioning the Questions: The Impermissibility of Police Deception in Interrogations of Juveniles

Article excerpt


Interrogators commonly claim that they have witnesses, fingerprints, hair, blood, semen or other evidence when they have little or nothing. Whether revealing evidence or telling lies, the interrogator labors to convince the suspect that the case against him is so overwhelming that he has no choice but to face the fact that he has been caught, will shortly be arrested, successfully prosecuted, and severely punished. This sets the stage for eliciting an admission of guilt in exchange for the smallest of benefits.1

On the evening of January 20, 1998, someone stabbed twelve-year-old Stephanie Crowe to death in her bedroom.2 After a brief investigation in which they found no evidence of forced entry, police turned to Stephanie's fourteen year-old brother, Michael, as their primary suspect. Two officers questioned Michael for eleven hours, during which time they repeatedly lied about the case against him to convince him that he had killed his own sister. The interrogators told Michael that they had found a knife, covered with Stephanie's blood, in his bedroom, and they suggested that his hair was found in her hand. They also subjected him to a "computer voice stress analyzer" (which he supposedly failed), telling him that it was an accurate test of a person's honesty.3

In reality, there was no knife, no blood, no hair, and no scientific basis for believing that the voice analyzer proved anything at all.4 Nonetheless, faced with the seemingly overwhelming evidence against him, Michael finally broke down and confessed to the crime, saying at one point: "I can't even believe myself anymore ... I don't even know what I did."5 Michael was arrested, and well on his way to a criminal conviction, when his attorneys discovered Stephanie's blood on the shirt of a drifter who had wandered through her neighborhood the night of the murder. Michael was cleared and the drifter was arrested in his place.6 This is one dramatic example of the subject of this Comment, the power of police to deceive juvenile suspects in criminal interrogations, and the effects such deception can have on impressionable and immature children.

In every criminal investigation, acquiring a confession is the top priority of police. A confession, if admitted into evidence at trial, virtually guarantees a conviction.7 Confessions are more powerful than any other type of evidence because they are an admission of guilt, accompanied by some account of the crime, seemingly volunteered by the suspect of his own free will.8 Like any other type of evidence, however, a confession can be inaccurate. In recent years, DNA testing has revealed dozens of cases where suspects confessed to violent crimes, only to be exonerated by evidence discrediting those confessions.9

The question of why innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit has been thoroughly discussed in academic circles,10 and though no consensus has formed, it is clear that at least some suspects confess because they feel they have no other choice, either because the pressure of interrogation is too intense to bear or because they face seemingly certain conviction, coupled with promises of leniency if they accept responsibility." This is in fact the desired result of police interrogations, and commonly-used interrogation manuals offer a step-by-step guide to obtaining convictions in this manner.12 Police deception-lying to suspects about the evidence and case against them-is one critical element of such pressure tactics13 and is advocated by police training manuals14 and seminars.15 Despite the seeming unfairness of allowing police to misrepresent or fabricate evidence for the purposes of questioning people who are presumed innocent, courts have been generally unwilling to discourage this tactic, either by limiting its use or ruling that the resulting confessions are involuntary and thus inadmissible.16

The reluctance to bar such confessions is often based on the assumption that an innocent person of normal intelligence will not admit to a crime she did not commit,17 even if faced with assertions of insurmountable evidence. …

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