Child confessions taken without attorney present shouldn’t be used
Edward George Carter was a teenager in 1974 when the Detroit Police pulled him off a street corner and threw him into an interrogation room. The police accused him of raping a pregnant Wayne State college student and Mr. Carter couldn’t precisely recall his location during the attack. Mr. Carter never confessed, but his statements were twisted by the prosecutor as evidence of his guilt and to discredit his alibi witness. He spent 36 years in prison before he was exonerated when the fingerprints from the scene were tested and matched a known serial rapist.
Mr. Carter was one of my first clients; his case is part of what drove me to become a juvenile public defender. I have since represented hundreds of children, but Mr. Carter was all I could think about last week when Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart emerged from the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse on Calvert Street exonerated men. Like Mr. Carter, they were black teenagers who were tried as adults and condemned to die in prison. Like Mr. Carter, they spent 36 years behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Like Mr. Carter, interrogations of teenagers without parents or attorneys present were used to secure their wrongful convictions.
While these cases may seem exceptional, data makes clear they are not: according to the National Registry of Exonerations, 36% of exonerations allegedly committed by youth involved false confessions, triple the estimated rate of false confessions overall.
The problem isn’t just false confessions, even the guilty have the right to remain silent. But as the Supreme Court has confirmed, adolescents lack the experience, perspective, developmental maturity and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them.
Young people are extremely susceptible to pressure from authority figures, making them vulnerable during the pressurecooker environment of police interrogation. Yet current law places minimal restriction on the interrogation of youth. An astounding 90% of kids, when confronted by law enforcement, give up their right to remain silent — often without ever understanding what it means. Research shows the Miranda warnings require an eighth grade reading level when a subject is not under the stress of arrest.
Maryland prosecutes children as young as 7 and a nationwide study of courtinvolved youth found that 70% of them have a mental health disorder. I routinely represent children who cannot read a three letter word, but have their confessions used against them in court.
It is past time for us to acknowledge the legal fiction that giving children a warning is enough to protect their constitutional rights. So I was thrilled to see Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s Op-Ed in the Washington Post on Thanksgiving calling for reforms to end the interrogations of children under age 14 and to require children between the ages of 14 to 18 to be assigned lawyers before they are questioned. Ms. Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit worked hand-in-hand with the defense teams and was integral in freeing Mr. Chestnut, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Stewart. In the op-ed, Ms. Mosby states that she hopes their cases shed light on the need for reform regarding youth interrogations
I could not agree more.
While I laud Ms. Mosby’s position, such sentiments are meaningless without policy to support them. As you read this, a 12-year-old cognitively impaired child sits in a cage based in part on a confession he gave to Baltimore police. Ms. Mosby says in her op-ed that a child’s statements are unreliable and should never be admissible in court. However, that same week, a prosecutor from Ms. Mosby’s office used my client’s statement as part of their argument for why the sixth grader should be kept in jail rather than spend the holiday with his family.
This is not unusual for Ms. Mosby’s tenure. It’s been almost a year since Ms. Mosby signed on to a letter calling for the use of a do-not-call-list for police officers with credibility issues. Ms. Mosby admits she has a list of hundreds of untrustworthy officers, but has not implemented a do-not-call list or turned it over to defense attorneys. That means that courts and prosecutors continue to rely on the testimony of police officers that Ms. Mosby knows cannot be trusted.
Words are simply not enough. Ms. Mosby should immediately inform law enforcement that the State’s Attorney’s Office will no longer use any admission given by a child without an attorney present. Such a policy would end this unreliable practice overnight.
Jennifer Egan (JE[email protected]) is chief attorney at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.