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In 2004, 12-year-old Jonathan Adams was charged with the murder of a nine-year-old girl in Carrollton, Georgia. After a four-hour police interrogation without his parents and lawyers present, Adams confessed to the murder and was incarcerated. But in 2006, another person came forward and confessed to the crime.
So if he didn’t do it, why did Adams confess?
As it turns out, juvenile false confessions are not unique. According to multiple studies, youths are at a higher risk than adults to admit to a crime they didn’t do when prompted by the police. In a 2004 study conducted by law professors Steven A. Drizin and Richard A. Leo of 125 verified false confessions , juveniles made up a disproportionately high number (one in three) of the cases. Even when it came to violent crimes, the young people in the study were at a high risk for false confession.
“Juveniles are particularly vulnerable: they tend to impulsive, they tend to be more focused on short-term gratification like ‘If I confess can I go home?’” said study co-author Drizen in a 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal. “They tend to be more deferential to authority; that might not seem like it’s the case in the real world, but in the interrogation room it is.”
Partially motivated by these findings, California lawmakers are moving to require better documentation of child interrogations. In August of this year, a bill that would require almost all interrogations of minors to be videotaped was approved by a state safety council. The bill was sponsored by Senator Ted W. Lieu as well as multiple law associations.
When an innocent person is incarcerated, wrote Senator Lieu on his government blog, “the real perpetrator remains free to commit crimes [and] the victims’ families are subjected to double emotional trauma – the loss of a loved one and the guilt over the conviction of an innocent child.”
Senator Lieu also said that by allowing to videotape interrogations “it can improve criminal investigation techniques, reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions and further the cause of justice in California.”
The bill is currently awaiting approval by Governor Jerry Brown.