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Three states are banning police lying to juvenile criminal suspects to coerce confessions. Could Ohio follow?

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 7/29/2021 Cory Shaffer,
a group of people sitting in front of a television: Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Ryan presides over a September 2017 hearing of two teenagers charged in a string of robberies. © Cory Shaffer/ Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Ryan presides over a September 2017 hearing of two teenagers charged in a string of robberies.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Some state lawmakers and criminal justice advocates in Ohio are hoping to learn from other states, with legislation meant to prevent police from lying to elicit confessions from children suspected of crimes.

The nation’s leading policing experts are increasingly opposing such tactics, long used during police interrogations, after hundreds of children across the country have had their convictions overturned after confessing under police pressure to crimes they didn’t commit.

A new law received broad bipartisan support in Illinois. Its Republican co-sponsor was a former prosecutor, and the state’s associations for prosecutors and police chiefs backed it. Lawmakers in Oregon passed a similar bill awaiting the governor’s signature. There is also legislation pending in New York that would apply the same restrictions on police interrogating juveniles and adults.

In Ohio, Democratic lawmakers introduced a similar measure that died in committee last year. They, along with groups like the Ohio Innocence Project and the Child Law Center, want to revive efforts to reform juvenile interrogations after Illinois showed it could be a bipartisan issue.

A key Republican on the Ohio House of Representatives criminal justice committee said he would be open to considering it.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said Tuesday that news coverage of the reforms raised no red flags for him because most cases are not solved by confessions anymore.

“I don’t see any significant issues with the proposal, but I would need to review it in detail,” O’Malley said.

However, the leader of the state’s prosecutors association is lukewarm to the prospect and unswayed by his counterparts in Illinois supporting the measure.

“We would have to review the legislation, but it is usually a bad idea to create blanket rules that could exclude voluntarily provided, highly probative, truthful evidence,” Lou Tobin, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said in an emailed statement.

But supporters of the legislation, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said that failing to prevent wrongful convictions undermines public safety because they leave the true culprits free to roam the communities.

Police lying

The U.S. Supreme Court has routinely upheld the use of confessions where police lied to suspects about the evidence against them in court. But the interrogation tactic has its roots in the 1950s after a series of high court rulings that threw out convictions in cases where police departments in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida tortured people to force them into confessions.

Police pivoted to using psychological tactics to elicit confessions, and a Chicago police detective named John Reid became the most prolific user. He eventually took his methods across the country and taught police how to use them.

The method calls for close-quartered interrogation rooms. The detective tells the accused that police know the person is guilty and often will say police have evidence or are working on getting evidence that will prove they did it, even if no such evidence exists. The detective can invoke what the person’s family and loved ones would think of when they are convicted and threaten them with long sentences.

Laura Nirider, director of the Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions, said the method is designed to break people down and make them think that, if the detective is so sure I did this, so will other people.

“You get reduced to the place of hopelessness very intentionally,” Nirider said. “You’re at rock bottom.”

Then, the detective offers a way out — confess. The detective says that there’s probably an explanation for what happened and that the person didn’t commit the crime out of spite or malice. Instead, maybe the person acted in self-defense, or the victim did something that angered the person and sparked the attack.

The detective, at that point, will often make a promise to seek leniency. They offer to make sure they don’t face the most severe charges or get sentenced to the maximum sentence, but only if they confess.

Homicide detectives in Cleveland have used the practice.

For example, in a recent Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas case, Detective Aaron Reese lied to Tevin Biles-Thomas and said detectives had security video from inside an Airbnb where a gunman opened fire during a New Year’s Eve Party and killed three people to get him to confess. He didn’t, and a judge later dropped murder charges at trial after finding police didn’t have enough evidence to sustain a conviction.

“These interrogations are powerful,” Nirider said. “In fact, they’re so powerful that they’ve also gotten confessions from innocent people hundreds and hundreds of times. Particularly if the person is a youth.”

Children more likely to be convicted on false confessions

Nirider said detectives push so hard for confessions because they are seen as the linchpin to a criminal case and can make up for otherwise weak evidence.

“We all think of confessions as the gold standard of evidence,” she said. “Very few people understand why people would confess to crimes they didn’t commit.”

But as advancements in DNA technology allowed people claiming to be wrongfully convicted to have their cases re-examined, a troubling trend arose: Many of the exonerated people confessed their guilt.

The National Registry of Exonerations — a partnership of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University College and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society — says that false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions in homicide cases. Juveniles are more than three times as likely to make a false confession than adults.

According to the group’s 2020 review of the first 2,400 documented exonerations, 292 of the wrongfully imprisoned people, or about 12 percent, had confessed their guilt to police.

Among 211 juveniles across the country who have had their convictions overturned, 36 percent falsely confessed, the group said.

Seven children under the age of 14 were wrongfully convicted; all but one gave a false confession, according to the registry.

Leah Winsberg, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center, said that children are more susceptible to false confessions because of a host of reasons. Kids feel intimidated by police officers and feel like they can’t disagree with them. They also have underdeveloped brains that focus on short-term rewards and can’t grasp the long-term consequences of their decisions.

“They’re able to prioritize a short-term benefit like being able to go home,” she said. “They’re unable to comprehend the long-term consequence of what it might mean if they admit to this. Decisions that a child and law enforcement make during interrogations have lifelong consequences.”

Stress of interrogation can make some people confess

Nirider, a national expert in false confessions of juveniles, is currently representing Brendan Dassey featured in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.” Dassey says he falsely confessed under pressure from police at 16 to helping his uncle Steven Avery murder a photographer in Wisconsin. Dassey is seeking a new trial.

Nirider said the research shows many people crack under the stress of a long and intense interrogation and take the chance to end it because they believe they think they will be acquitted later. That factor is heightened when the detective says police are in the process of testing DNA evidence. The suspect might think the results will prove their innocence, and police or prosecutors will eventually drop the case.

If the officer promised to help them out if they confessed, the person could also believe that the officer will help them when the evidence clears them.

In a few high-profile cases, police convinced innocent teenagers that they did commit the crime.

Martin Tankleff was 17 years old when he falsely confessed to murdering his parents in 1988, according to the registry. Detectives in Suffolk County, New York, told him that they found strands of his hair inside his dead mother’s palms, and his father had briefly awakened from his coma in the hospital and told police that Tankleff did the crime. The boy told police that he knew his father would never lie, so he said it was possible he blacked out and committed the crime. He wrote out a confession but refused to sign it. Nevertheless, a jury convicted him, and a judge sentenced him to 50 years to life. He served 15 years before his conviction his exoneration.

Even in cases where that DNA evidence did clear the person before trial, prosecutors still pursued charges and changed their theory of the crime.

Jeffrey Deskovic, then 16, admitted to raping and killing his 15-year-old classmate in New York in 1988. When DNA from semen found on the victim excluded him, prosecutors said he killed her in a jealous rage after she had consensual sex with someone else. He was convicted of rape and murder and spent 16 years in prison before the Innocence Project convinced a judge to reopen the case, and investigators tested the DNA against a criminal database. It came back to a man serving a life sentence for strangling a woman after the girl’s murder. The man later admitted that he raped and killed the girl and received another life sentence.

The case of Anthony Harris

In 1999, a case in New Philadelphia made national news.

New Philadelphia police latched onto 12-year-old Anthony Harris as a suspect in the June 1999 fatal stabbing of his neighbor, 5-year-old Devan Duniver. Investigators learned Harris had pushed her to the ground several weeks before her death after she threw a brick at him. Other children said they overheard him tell the girl he was going to kill her during another encounter, according to court records.

Capt. Jeffrey Urban tricked Anthony’s mother into bringing the boy to the police station by telling her Millersburg Police Chief Thomas Vaughn would administer a relaxing, voice-stress test to the boy, records say. When they arrived, police pulled Anthony into the department’s tiny interrogation room and told his mother she had to watch through a glass window. She could not hear.

Vaughn almost immediately began questioning Anthony about the murder, and used all the hallmarks of the Reid technique on the boy, according to a 2009 article in American Lawyer magazine.

Vaughn said he knew Anthony killed Devan, but there could have been an explanation for why he did, according to a transcript of the interview included in court records. Anthony kept mentioning the previous encounter and denied killing her.

Vaughn continued, asking Anthony for any reason investigators would find Devan’s blood in his pockets, oe why his footprints would be near where Devan’s body was found. Police found none of Devan’s DNA on Anthony’s clothes. They did find a partial footprint in the mud in the woods by her body but never matched it to Anthony’s shoes.

Vaughn said he could help Anthony by writing a letter to the judge and the prosecutor and said they would look on him more favorably if he confessed.

Vaughn continued to ask what Devan could have done to make him kill her. Anthony said she could have called him the N-word. Vaughn seized on the comment.

After nearly an hour of questioning, Anthony admitted to pushing the girl down and stabbing her in the neck. Even then, he gave conflicting details that didn’t match evidence, according to court records.

Anthony wrote out his confession. The boy was crying and asked to speak to his mom. Vaughn brought her into the room, and Anthony told her he didn’t do it.

His mother asked how he knew the girl had been stabbed. Anthony said he read in the newspaper that Devan had died of sharp injuries to her neck and guessed the person used a knife.

“I was scared,” he said. “The questions were too hard.”

Vaughn played a recording of Anthony’s statement to then-Tuscarawas County Prosecutor Amanda Bonsworth, who directed Urban to arrest the boy.

Tuscarawas Juvenile Court Judge Linda Kate denied a motion from Anthony’s public defender to suppress his statement, rejecting the notion that police coerced it out of him. Bonsworth’s office tried Anthony in juvenile court, and Kate found him guilty based on the confession. Kate sentenced Anthony to the maximum penalty: imprisonment in a juvenile detention center until he turned 21.

Anthony spent two years in juvenile detention before the 10th District Court of Appeals tossed his conviction and found Vaughn violated his Constitutional rights.

Bonsworth never filed charges against Anthony, though she has maintained he is a suspect. Police have made no other arrests.

Anthony sued Urban, Vaughn, Bonsworth and the village of New Philadelphia in 2003 in federal court. The parties settled the case for a combined $3.2 million.

Anthony’s attorney, Dan Warren, said Anthony joined the Marine Corps and completed four tours of duty in Afghanistan. He now lives in Pennsylvania and works in a trade union.

Experts begin to rethink juvenile interrogations

Exonerations like Anthony Harris and the others lead some of the foremost police interrogation experts to urge police to rethink the way they interrogate children.

Reid and Associates, the organization born from the Chicago detective by the same name, posted a short blurb on its website in 2009 about Anthony’s case with a link to the American Lawyer article.

“This case illustrates the importance of developing independent corroboration from suspects, particularly juveniles,” the blurb reads.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a September 2012 report advising police detectives against using deception and promises of leniency in interrogating juveniles because they lead to false confessions. Anthony’s case was among several cases mentioned in the 44-page document.

And in 2017, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, a Chicago-based consulting group that says it has provided training to most of the country’s police departments, said in 2017 that it would no longer teach the Reid technique and instead shift to non-confrontational methods.

Reactions from Illinois, New York, Oregon

Nirider said the passage of Illinois’ law came after two decades of defendants and attorneys repeatedly proving to courts that people can falsely confess to crimes and a public more open to reforming the criminal justice system.

The law, introduced earlier this year and signed on July 14 by Gov. JB Pritzker, says that any confession a juvenile gives after police lied to them about the strength of the evidence against them or promised them leniency in exchange for a confession is inadmissible in court. Instead, prosecutors must rely on other evidence to convict the child.

Nirider said the reform is a small step in the right direction and urged every state to follow Illinois’ lead.

“There’s no reason why this reform should not spread like wildfire across all the states,” she said. “It’s commonsense, fair play reform.”

How Ohio officials view the possibility

State Rep. Terrence Upchurch, a Cleveland Democrat, said he wants to revive a bill he co-sponsored with fellow Democratic Rep. Jeffrey Crossman of Parma last June that sought broad reforms to juvenile interrogations. The bill sought to make inadmissible in court confessions from juveniles after police used “misrepresentations or deception” during interviews and would have barred police from questioning children at all before they spoke to a parent or lawyer about waiving their right to have either present.

The bill garnered no Republican support. In addition, the Ohio Prosecutors Association opposed it, fearing it was too broad and unworkable.

Office of the Ohio Public Defender issued a statement Monday in support of the legislation.

Upchurch said in a phone interview that watching the Netflix documentary “When They See Us” moved him to sponsor the bill. The documentary depicts the wrongful convictions of five teenagers in the raping and killing of a jogger in New York City’s infamous “Central Park Five” case.

“We want to make sure that when our young people are interrogated by law enforcement, they are not coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit,” Upchurch said.

He said he would be willing to pare back his 2020 bill to model it after the Illinois legislation and said he has been in conversations with colleagues about introducing the bill to this General Assembly with the hopes of getting bipartisan support. He also said he hoped that O’Malley, whom he said was “a straight shooter,” would weigh in and offer his thoughts on the bill.

“Other states are moving forward,” Upchurch said. “It’s time for Ohio to get in front of something and be a leader, not a follower.”

O’Malley said in a text message that he saw no immediate problems.

“Few crimes today are solved by confessions,” he said. “Most [cases] we have video, DNA, GPS, ballistic or other evidence that leaves no doubt as to their guilt.”

Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who sits on the criminal justice committee in the House of Representatives, said the idea of Ohio copying the Illinois bill was “an intriguing proposition.”

Seitz, who pushed for a bill requiring police to video or audio record all interrogations of juveniles that became law earlier this year, said he would first want to talk to the Ohio Innocence Project, the state prosecutors’ association and other groups before he decided whether a bill like Illinois’ is needed in Ohio.

“If there’s public appetite in Ohio for this legislation, I would consider supporting it,” Seitz said.

The Ohio Innocence Project’s Program Director for Policy, Legislation and Education Pierce Reid said his organization is on board.

“A false confession is in the interests of no one,” Reid said. “Not only does the person who falsely confesses suffer, but victims also suffer when wrongful convictions are discovered. So, too, do members of the public. Taxpayers may be liable for the financial compensation paid to victims of false confession and all of us lose faith in our courts at a time when we most need to have confidence in our government and especially in our courts.”

Tobin, from the state’s prosecutor’s association, argued that Ohio’s current process for determining whether a confession is admissible — a suppression hearing where a judge decides whether police coerced the statement — is sufficient.

“The admissibility of a confession should be resolved by a judge on a case-by-case basis on motions to suppress – not by one-size-fits-all legislation based on anecdote and conjecture,” Tobin said. “Juvenile confessions already receive greater scrutiny by courts. The motion to suppress is the appropriate way to safeguard a person’s rights without arbitrarily excluding what could be a completely voluntary, completely truthful confession.”

When directed to Anthony Harris’ case, where the judge denied the motion to suppress, and he spent two years locked up before an appeals court corrected the error and hundreds of other cases across the country where judges allowed coerced statements into evidence, he said it would amount to “legislating by anecdote.”

“I think [judges] get it right very frequently, and it’s just not newsworthy,” Tobin said. “There are big differences between a 12-year-old who has no experience in the criminal justice system and a 17-year-old who has a lengthy criminal record. Courts need to be able to take differences into account when deciding whether a statement was voluntary.”

He added concerning Harris’ case that “a court of appeals determined, based on a variety of facts, that Anthony Harris’s confession was coerced. That’s the appropriate standard, and it’s why we have an appellate process.”

Upchurch said that the legislation would help address the times where judges do get it wrong.

“If I’m a prosecutor, I want a system that works all the time. I don’t want a system that gets it right most of the time, but once in a while, someone falls through the cracks,” he said. “If we have an opportunity to make the system stronger, why not support it?”

Advocates like Winsberg do not see a downside in passing the legislation.

“What is the disincentive?” she asked. “If we know that children are susceptible to false confessions, what is the harm of reducing that possibility by ensuring that tactics utilized are not deceptive?”

Clarification: This story was updated to reflect the Office of the Ohio Public Defender’s position on the legislation.


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