Looking Back: NY Must Pass Legislation to Protects Youths from Invasive Police Interrogations

By Jeffrey Deskovic

This article was originally published this past week by the Queens Daily Eagle

Coerced, false confessions have caused wrongful convictions in 29 percent of the DNA-proven wrongful convictions, with youth and people with mental health issues being particularly vulnerable. Children do not understand their Fifth Amendment Rights and, as a result, frequently waive them – often with disastrous results.

I am an attorney whose life is dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted and preventing wrongful convictions in the first place via legislation, through my non-profit organization, The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice. One critical measure The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation is working on as part of the #Right2RemainSilent Coalition is the Youth Interrogation Act, a legislative proposal that would mandate that kids aged 17 years old and younger speak to an attorney to explain their rights prior to a police interrogation. Its passage is urgent and clearly needed.

At 16 years old, I waived my rights without understanding them, and that culminated in a false confession that ultimately cost me 16 years in prison for murder and rape prior to DNA evidence exonerating me.

But my case is not the only one. This past summer, a sixth Central Park Defendant, Steven Lopez, was exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted following the extraction of a false confession from him at age fifteen. In Brooklyn, three other youths, Vincent Ellerbe, James Irons, and Thomas Malik, were exonerated after years in prison. How many more youth have to have their lives stolen from them through false confessions before Albany finally acts? It is important to understand that this bill would not create a new right; it would simply breathe life into a right that already exists.

Law enforcement claims that this bill will hinder them in doing their jobs; but this is not so.

Neither California, Washington, nor Maryland, where the bill has been passed, are reporting difficulty solving crimes. If police want to question a youth, they likely already have evidence pointing to the youth. If a case needs a little bit more evidence before an arrest can be made, then investigation can continue.

Police work is not supposed to be quick or easy, and our justice system does not depend on the unknowing, unintelligent and involuntary waiver of rights, most of which are by people from communities of color or those who lack  financial resources. What is one of the first steps that wealthy parents take when they learn that police want to question their kids? Hire a lawyer. But poor people cannot afford to hire attorneys, so socio-economic status is allowed to perpetuate inequity in the justice system.

In comparison, police officers facing investigation following a concerning shooting are given twenty-four hours to consult with an attorney before they can be questioned. These are adults with a legal background already familiar with the criminal justice system and how it works. If they are deemed to need protection, so too do kids. Or is this simply yet another extension of us vs. them?

Some argue that the decision whether to waive rights should rest with parents, and that involving an attorney takes away parental authority. This argument fails several ways: firstly, parents often don’t understand Miranda Warnings themselves; secondly, sometimes a parent’s rights are at odds with their child’s; and lastly, false confession experts have found that sometimes police are able to turn parents into their agents of coercion in securing involuntary statements from their own children.

Videotaping of interrogations, which is already mandated, albeit with disturbing carve-outs of homicides, sex offenses, and drug cases that must be remedied, helps, as would an introduced police deception bill which recognizes that lying to suspects is inherently coercive. But these measures are not enough; children under eighteen will still remain vulnerable.

I call upon the New York State Legislature, including Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, to make my suffering and that of other youth victimized by coerced, false confessions extracted from us without our even understanding our rights, count for something by passing the Youth Interrogation bill this session. End this injustice so often visited on youth, most frequently on minorities. Don’t our lives matter?

Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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