This week, Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart were freed following an investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) — just in time to spend their first Thanksgiving at home in 36 years. Though this exoneration seeks to right an egregious wrong, it leaves unanswered the deeply troubling and pervasive practice of basing convictions on statements taken from young people.
Prosecutors have a duty to administer justice with integrity. When a tragic injustice occurs, we must work to ensure those mistakes never happen again.
That’s why we need a new starting point when it comes to how we think about youth interrogation practices. While facilitating pathways to transitional assistance and supporting compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted are important — and are reforms the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office is advancing — prosecutors must implement changes that prevent unreliable or coerced evidence from putting innocent individuals behind bars in the first place.
The witnesses in this case were interrogated repeatedly by officers without any adults present until the pressure of this coercive environment led them to falsely identify the three young men as the perpetrators. The resulting convictions were based largely on this false testimony. And while the three exonerees always maintained their innocence, we know that many kids who have ended up wrongfully convicted were driven to falsely “confess” under the same coercive interrogation techniques that led to the incriminating evidence in this case.
We all want to get to the truth in criminal cases, but interrogation — especially of young people — is a tool that should be wielded carefully. And concerns with interrogation of witnesses under 18 are even more critical in the context of young suspects. In those cases, the starting point must include an unequivocal requirement that parents and counsel for the child be present for any law enforcement interrogation.
This shift in policy is consistent with research confirming that we need to treat kids in the justice system differently. Teenagers’ brains are still developing, particularly the region responsible for logical decision-making. They are not able to fully understand the implications of waiving their Miranda rights — which include the “right to remain silent.” Indeed, up to 90 percent of young people waive their Miranda rights, and most kids under 18 do not understand why these rights matter.
Children are also uniquely susceptible to psychological pressure. Coercive interrogation strategies can manipulate young people who may not be able to appreciate long-term consequences of false statements and who are more likely to be afraid of authority figures. A staggering 86 percent of individuals exonerated for crimes that occurred before they turned 14 had falsely confessed. And one study of more than 100 wrongful convictions of youths showed that more than 34 percent were because of an unreliable statement by another young person.
With clear evidence that children are unable to protect themselves against these pressures, it’s up to our legal system to establish safeguards to prevent coercive tactics from being used to ensure that young children are not interrogated to begin with. Some states have embraced this starting point. California and New Mexico have statutes placing strict limits on interrogations of youths. And the Supreme Court acknowledged in J. D. B. v. North Carolina that children are at greater risk of influence by coercive interrogation tactics that already induce a “frighteningly high” percentage of adults to provide false confessions. Next session, the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office will push the state legislature to enact similar reforms.
This case underscores the need for elected prosecutors to implement changes in their offices’ practices and call for legislative reforms. To begin, we simply should not allow interrogation of youths younger than 14. Kids this young cannot be deemed to have “voluntarily” waived their rights, and the risk of false confessions is simply too high. Statements from children under 14 should be inadmissible as unreliable, and we should not tolerate the risk of undue coercion or influence.
Moreover, experts have cautioned that youths below age 18 should have legal counsel (to protect their legal rights) and a parent or supportive guardian present during interrogation. As the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry concluded, “parental presence alone may not be sufficient to protect youth suspects.” The academy further recommended simplifying Miranda warnings for kids — a practice implemented by the King County (Seattle) Sheriff’s Office — and videotaping all such interrogations.
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart will never get back the decades they lost to incarceration. But perhaps their cases will shed light on the need for reforming youth interrogations and thereby prevent future wrongful convictions. We owe that much, at least, to children who come into contact with our justice system.