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Research shows teens often confess crimes they didn't commit

Police and prosecutors like it when a suspect confesses to a crime. To their way of thinking, such admissions affirm that their investigative methods work and that they're putting the real perpetrators of crimes away. Unfortunately, a growing body of evidence suggests that, too often, that isn't the case; especially if the involves charges against juveniles.

A new database of exoneration cases in which the defendant was wrongfully convicted and later cleared of charges indicates that false confessions were obtained in 38 percent of the cases involving youths younger than 18. Meanwhile, false confessions were found to have been factors in only 11 percent of cases of exonerated adults.

Virginia readers might well wonder why any person would admit to a crime they didn't commit? There is no one clear answer. But the compilers of the database say a lot may have to do with how teenagers' brains work. As one them notes, juveniles tend to be more focused on the here and now, not long-term consequences. So when they feel the pressure of tough interrogation, they're more likely to say what authorities want to hear just to ease that pressure.

Some techniques used by successful interrogators may deliver the results desired. But that doesn't mean that they are appropriate, or even always legal. They sometimes use tricks or are overly aggressive. Sometimes, investigators might take advantage of a juvenile suspect who happens to be impaired by substance abuse to coerce a confession.

In one case highlighted recently in The Wall Street Journal, a Los Angeles 16-year-old who was drunk was questioned in the death of a man. He eventually confessed, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison. The problem is that video footage uncovered later by one of the defendants showed that at the time of the shooting, the youth and three other defendants were nearly four miles away.

Anyone charged with a crime should remember that they have a right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning. This is a good advice to follow even if when charges are as simple as reckless driving or underage possession of alcohol. A juvenile's future could be at stake.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "False Confessions Dog Teens," Zusha Elinson, Sept. 8. 2013

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