As we noted last week, we remain troubled by the confession of Daniel Marsh. As we noted last week, during a suppression hearing this spring, Andrea Pelochino of the Public Defender’s office argued that Daniel Marsh’s youth, inexperience and mental health challenges made him uniquely susceptible to the suggestions of law enforcement and a veteran FBI special agent.
Ms. Pelochino cited research on juvenile susceptibility, versus that of adults, to confess or possibly falsely confess under pressure. She argued that his apparent sophistication does not matter.
In an article in yesterday in the New York Times, that point is driven home. The Times cites a study published in June in Law and Human Behavior, a publication of the American Psychological Association, that is among the first to examine actual interrogation of juvenile suspects.
As the study notes in its abstract, “The present study examines electronically recorded police interviews with juveniles to describe the characteristics, processes, and outcomes that occur in actual juvenile interrogations, including interview duration, individuals present, and confessions. Fifty-seven electronic recordings from 17 police departments were analyzed using observational research software. The median juvenile interrogation lasted 46 min, though the range was extensive (6 min to nearly 5 hr). Youth frequently submitted to questioning without a parent or advocate present, and disruptions to the interview process were common. Interrogation outcomes varied and included full confessions, partially incriminating admissions, and denials of guilt.”
As the New York Times notes, “Even when police interrogators left the room, cameras kept recording the teenage suspects. Some paced. Several curled up and slept. One sobbed loudly, hitting his head against the wall, berating himself. Two boys, left alone together, discussed their offense, joking.
“What none did, however, was exercise his constitutional rights. It was not clear whether the youths even understood them.”
The result is troubling – none of the juveniles had a lawyer at their side. None of them left, even though they were free to do so, and none remained silent.
As the Times writes, “The research, published in Law and Human Behavior, adds to accumulating evidence that teenagers are psychologically vulnerable at the gateway to the criminal justice system. Youths, some researchers say, merit special protections.”
“If kids are making these poor decisions because their development is not complete, then to penalize them with long-term legal consequences is unfair,” said the study’s author, Hayley M.D. Cleary as reported by the Times.
This study is the first to examine actual interrogations.
As we have noted before, jurors find confessions highly persuasive. One study that looked at actual wrongful convictions found that jurors would accept confessions even in cases where there was direct exculpatory evidence.
Moreover, with teenagers, studies continue to show that they “are not developmentally ready to make critical decisions that have long-term impacts.”
“Adolescents are more oriented to the present, so they are less likely than adults to be thinking about the future consequences of what they’re saying,” said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, the Times reports.
“The police often promise kids things in the present. ‘If you just tell me you did it, you can go see your mom,’ ” he continued. “And because the brain’s reward systems are hypersensitive during adolescence, that immediate reward of confessing will trump the thinking of, ‘What will happen when I come back to court in a month?’ ”
This is exactly what happened in the Daniel Marsh case. Veteran FBI Special Agent Chris Campion repeatedly told Daniel that he was his healer: “Now, Daniel, this is your time to heal, I am here to heal you, this is your refuge.”
This is a common tactic by interrogators – they create conflict and attempt to back the individual into the corner so that he or she sees the only way out of the situation is to confess.
As we noted last week, “Youth are more naive, trusting, fearful and more easily misled. Investigators can more easily suggest to juveniles that they face harsher consequences if they don’t confess, and much lesser consequences if they do. After hours of interrogation, studies have shown, many youthful suspects will conform their stories to cues from detectives, believing they can then finally go home.”
The Times notes that “teenagers aged 15 and younger will unwittingly comply with authority figures. They are very suggestible, so that during an interrogation, they are more likely than adults to change their answers in response to interviewers.”
The Times writes, “In Dr. Cleary’s study, the average age of the juveniles, almost all boys, was about 15. In nearly every interview, the door was shut to the interrogation room, with the suspect sitting in a corner and the interrogator between the youth and the door. In half the cases, the interrogator had a visible weapon. In 16 percent, the suspects were handcuffed or in leg shackles. The interrogations were frequently interrupted, with other interviewers coming and going. The teenager often was left alone. One interrogator came and went 19 times.”
The Times writes, “Dr. Cleary speculated that interruptions could heighten a suspect’s anxiety but they could also afford him mental breaks.”
A significant concern about interrogations of juveniles has been their limited capacity to comprehend rights such as the Miranda warnings.
The Times notes, “Dr. Steinberg once asked a 12-year-old about the right to remain silent. In his new book, ‘Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,’ he recounts how the boy, who recognized the Miranda warnings from watching ‘Law & Order,’ replied: ‘It means that you don’t have to say anything until the police officer asks you a question.’ Some jurisdictions require that parents be present for interrogations of teenagers. In Dr. Cleary’s study, only 12 suspects were accompanied by parents during portions of the interviews, whose duration ranged from six minutes to five hours, with the average about 45 minutes.”
But if parents are not legally savvy, their presence may not serve young suspects well, the Times points out
They write, “In the videos, five parents remained largely silent. Some lectured their children and then questioned them, taking on the interrogator’s role. A few parents urged their children to come clean, inadvertently sealing their fate.”
Parents have conflicting roles, Dr. Cleary said. “They want to defend their children against accusations of wrongdoing. But we also socialize children to obey the law and tell the truth.
“Some parents might have felt compelled to use the situation as a teachable moment, or they might have felt their parenting skills were being threatened.” Dr. Cleary said. “It’s not fair to put parents in that situation, particularly without a lawyer.” But how do parents balance encouraging children to respect authority against the harm that can befall them by speaking with interrogators?
Dr. Steinberg suggests that parents tell teenagers: “If you’re being questioned by police because they think you’ve done something bad, say you need to talk to your parents first.” Parents can decide whether to call a lawyer.
The Times writes, “Citing recent research, the American Psychological Association has called for widespread protections for suspects, including teenagers, during interrogations. The recommendations include limiting the length of interviews; videotaping them in their entirety; assuring that teenagers are always accompanied by a lawyer; and that interviewers be trained to reduce the risk of eliciting false confessions from impressionable suspects such as youths.”
“This spring, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a law enforcement coalition, along with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, developed online training for those who interview adolescents. Drawing from developmental research, the program instructs officers to explain Miranda warnings in language teenagers will understand and not to make false promises of leniency, because of youths’ proclivity toward gullibility.”
“We want to avoid involuntary or false confessions from juveniles,” said John Firman, director of research for the association. “The ultimate goal is to get accurate information from them. And if you don’t understand juvenile brain development, the likelihood is that you’ll get bad information.”
Where does that leave Daniel Marsh?
Daniel Marsh was a 16-year-old. He was lured to the interrogation room under false pretenses and he agreed to waive his Miranda rights, believing he would be interrogated on a knife incident. He was kept in the interrogation room for five hours, denied his mother, an attorney, or the chance to leave.
The veteran FBI Agent Campion then gave him an out and promised to heal him, ultimately inducing him to confess to the crime.
As we have noted, there are a number of false convictions that end at this point. They have the confession and little other evidence. Sometimes the jury weighs the confession so heavily that they ignore exculpatory and contradictory evidence.
In this case, you have physical evidence, and the fact that Mr. Marsh had bragged to his friends about the crime, to bolster the confession, but other than the fact that the confession was videoed, the police abandoned evidence-based practices in how they went about obtaining the confession. Under other circumstances, we would be alarmed more than we are at how this was conducted.
—David M. Greenwald reporting