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Youth on trial: Cases often include false confessions, false witness statements

| Mar 29, 2021 | Criminal appeals

No one enjoys admitting that they made a serious mistake. But when that reluctance is part of the criminal justice system, errors can mean that people who are not guilty of crimes spend years of their lives behind bars.

One such case began in November 1983, when a 14-year-old boy was shot and killed in the hallway of a Baltimore middle school. Days later, police arrested three teenage boys, who were eventually convicted of murder and then sentenced to life in prison.

Lost years

Dubbed the “Harlem Park Three” for the name of the school where the killing occurred, the three spent 36 years each behind bars.

After their 2019 release from prison, they sued the Baltimore Police Department and the lead detectives on their cases. In court documents, they argued that police reports showed that detectives had been told that another teenager had admitted his involvement in the killing and had been seen wearing the victim’s jacket afterward.

Coerced false witness statements

The suit also says police coerced statements from teenage witnesses who wrongly identified the three teens as the perpetrators.

The Harlem Park Three case is echoed in other notorious cases in which teenagers were convicted of crimes they did not commit: the Central Park Five and the Englewood Four.

“The convictions were all based on false confessions and false witness statements,” writes Erika N. Fountain, director of the Youth Justice Lab at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. Clinical psychology doctoral student Sydney Baker and Emily Haney-Caron, director of the Youth Law & Psychology Lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice co-wrote the piece.

Disturbing data

They state that those three cases represent a dozen teenagers who lost 210 years of their lives, but that what happened to the boys is not an anomaly. They point out that the National Registry of Exonerations found that 35 percent of exonerated under-age-18 defendants confessed and that a study of youth wrongful convictions found that 35 percent of the cases included unreliable statements from at least one youth witness.

Volumes of research show why kids and adolescents make incriminating statements and false confessions to crimes: coercive interrogations by police, susceptibility to pressure from authority figures and shortsightedness that is a common aspect of youth.

A proposed solution

Fountain, Baker and Haney-Caron propose legislation to help prevent similar miscarriages of justice: Whenever police officers want to question a child or adolescent, the youth must first meet with an attorney.

They note that newly proposed legislation in Maryland would require youth – whether they are suspects or witnesses – to meet with a lawyer before police questioning, and that a parent or guardian must be notified.

They argue that this will dramatically reduce false confessions and false witness statements that can lead to convictions of young people for crimes they did not commit.