Bullied: When Kids Confess Under Duress

News & Politics

A rogue's gallery of juvenile offenders has taken up residence in our collective consciousness, with freshly scrubbed criminal faces originating from the back roads of Jonesboro, Ark., to the foothills of suburban Littleton, Colo.It's pretty disturbing as far as trends go, this rash of violence perpetrated by children. Thanks in part to popular culture, juvenile crime is now a product we heartily consume if not entirely fathom. Events like the shooting at Columbine High have created a new model of the murderer. No longer do the maniacal faces of Manson and Gacy define fear. The faces we demonize are those of children, and it has become all too easy for adults to believe children are capable of the most heinous crimes.Public officials are more than ready to root out the next Kip Kinkel. The trash talk that has dominated school cafeterias and playgrounds from the beginning of time can now get kids expelled, if not land them in jail. And once accused -- be it of plotting a school shooting or of murdering the neighbor girl -- the police employ the same interrogation techniques used on adults in order to get the conviction that will quell heightened fears of violent youths run amok.There's only one problem: Using techniques designed to get confessions from adults seems to be producing a flood of false confessions from children.Exhibit AAt first, Lori Duniver wasn't alarmed. A divorced mother of two knows that kids sometimes wander out of eyesight. In fact, before that fateful day -- Saturday, June 28, 1998 -- Duniver's 5-year-old daughter Devan had twice been returned by the New Philadelphia, Ohio police after they found her playing too far from home. Besides, New Philadelphia is a sleepy town -- not the kind of place where heinous crimes happen.Minutes after Devan's disappearance (but hours before she would report it), Lori Duniver ran into her neighbor Anthony Harris, then 12 years old, on his way home from a friend's house. Because Anthony had helped take care of her children in the past, Lori offered him five dollars to help her look for Devan. The two combed the area, which included stopping by a neighbor's pool that served as a play spot for children. Anthony's brother, who was there swimming, says he later saw Devan in a wooded area just behind the neighbor's pool talking to someone he was unable to identify.But Duniver's attempts to locate Devan were futile. This time, it wasn't just a matter of Devan playing too far from home. This time, every parent's worst nightmare was coming true. Devan had been missing from their duplex apartment for over six hours, and Duniver realized she needed more than Anthony's help. She called the police to report Devan missing, and shortly thereafter, more than 400 volunteers from the community were out searching for the girl, working through a Saturday night thunderstorm until the early morning hours.At daybreak on Sunday, the investigators again began their quest. Almost 24 hours after she was first reported missing, the search ended when an off-duty paramedic found Devan's body about a 100 yards from her home in a wooded area smaller than a football field. Later, the county coroner reported that her death was the result of seven puncture wounds to the neck, probably from a knife with a blade at least one centimeter wide.After the discovery of the body, the lead investigator on the case, New Philadelphia Police Captain Jeff Urban, canvassed the neighborhood children to find out what they knew about the crime. Troubled by the fact that Anthony's description of his route home that day differed under repeated questioning, Urban asked Anthony's mother, Cyndi Harris, if he could question Anthony and his brother at the station house.Because her children went to school with Urban's children, Harris thought of the captain as a friend and agreed to the questioning. As a responsible single mother of three who moved her family to the New Philadelphia apartment complex three years before in order to be closer to her portrait studio, she'd never had a problem with her children and felt she had nothing to fear. But just as she went inside to get her car keys, Urban placed Anthony in his cruiser and drove off, leaving a stunned Harris to follow with her other son.Recording their conversation in the cruiser, Urban read Anthony his Miranda rights, casually telling him that he had to do this any time he gave someone a ride in his car. He questioned Anthony until they reached the police station.As the investigation continued in the following weeks, Urban told Cyndi Harris that he wanted to give Anthony and some of the other kids a voice stress analysis test in order to clarify some of the information they had supplied. Harris consented, and both she and her son signed a consent form that contained no Miranda warnings.Anthony was taken to a room with the classic police station one-way mirror, wired to record their conversation. On the other side, Urban and Harris conversed informally while watching Anthony talk with Police Chief Thomas Vaughn from nearby Millersburg, the only local officer trained to administer the stress analysis test. Poor sound quality on the audio system made it all but impossible for those on the other side of the mirror to hear what Vaughn and Anthony were saying to each other, but this didn't bother Harris since police told her this was an informal interview -- not an interrogation.The recorded 80-minute pre-test "interview" was in fact an interrogation that began with Chief Vaughn reading Anthony his rights. A voice stress analysis test was never even administered, and the questioning moved very quickly to the identity of Devan's murderer:Vaughn: What grade are you in, Anthony? Anthony: I'm going into 7th-grade. Vaughn: Going into the 7th-grade? Play sports or anything? Anthony: No. Vaughn: No? Don't like sports? Anthony: I like sports. Vaughn: OK, ahh, I assume you know why you were asked to come in and talk to me today. OK, can you tell me why? Anthony: Because I, umm, I don't know too much. Vaughn: OK. Anthony: (Unclear). Vaughn: OK, ahh, but why do you think specifically you're here today? Anthony: Because it was the time I came home and ahh you know. Vaughn: OK, and that's relating to Devan's death? Is that right? Anthony: Yeah. Vaughn: Um, let me ask you this, who do you think would have had the best opportunity to do this? Anthony: Um... Vaughn: Do you know what I mean by that? Anthony: Yeah. Ah, I don't know.Using an interrogation technique that defense expert witness and University of Berkeley professor Richard Ofshe says is known as the Reid technique, Vaughn's questions become more direct and describe possible consequences for Anthony:Vaughn: Ah, did you do this crime Anthony? Anthony: No. Vaughn: Are you sure about that? Anthony: I'm sure. Vaughn: OK, because like I said before, I can only help you if, if you help me. And we're probably going to know ah, and have, or at least the test results back in a couple of days from the place that they sent your clothes to, and it's going to say whether there was blood in those clothes or not, and that blood would have been our victim's here. Ah, and see that would be the point of time that you're sort of stuck. Ah, now it's not, that Anthony was forthcoming. He came in, he talked to me, he didn't want to tell me. I'm not going to deny that, I mean it's probably going to be the toughest thing you ever do is if you tell me that you did this... I would like to know before I give the test, so that I don't have to send the court or the prosecutor office or anybody there that I did the test and Anthony lied to me on this test. That's the worst thing in the world that could happen here.After denying his involvement in Devan's murder several times, Anthony begins to break. Vaughn repeatedly tells him that there are two possible scenarios: Either Anthony is a stand-up guy who did something bad in an irrational moment, something he wishes he could take back; or Anthony is a bad kid, a cold-blooded monster. Vaughn repeatedly says that if Anthony confesses and demonstrates he is the stand-up guy that his mom says he is, Vaughn can help him and write a letter to the court. If he is the other type of guy, no one can help him.Vaughn begins to elicit a confession from Anthony, leading the boy through each step of the crime and suggesting answers when Anthony seems to be stumped. That Anthony's answers don't always match the facts of the crime seems of little importance:Vaughn: Did you help look for Devan? Anthony: Huh? Vaughn: Did you help them look for Devan after this happened? Anthony: I looked for Devan before it happened? Vaughn: OK, so, you, you were in the woods [when] Devan was there, and you were still mad at her over the brick and, did she take off running on you right before it happened or did she say anything to you? Anthony: She said before I got in the woods (unclear). Vaughn: OK, OK, but how did she end up where she was after you stabbed her? Anthony: Supposedly either she was already there or... Vaughn: Anthony, we're past somebody doing that, unless you, you stabbed her where she was found didn't you? Nobody moved her did they? Anthony: See, I don't know. Vaughn: Pardon? Anthony: I don't know where she was. Vaughn: OK, you don't know because you don't know where she was found. Anthony: No. Vaughn: OK, but you stabbed her in the woods. Can you say yes or no? Anthony: Yes. No. No. I mean yes, I'm just nervous now.When Vaughn asks Anthony to write out a statement about what he did, the child asks for his mother. Once Harris enters the room, Anthony recants his "confession." When asked by his mother why he would admit to such an act, he replies, "'Cause I, I was just scared." In the end, Anthony never wrote a "confession."But in March 1999, Judge Linda Kate found Anthony Harris guilty of the murder of Devan Duniver, largely on the basis of Anthony's "confession" to Chief Vaughn, who was not even available for the defense to cross examine at trial. Because Anthony was under the age of 14, he was tried and sentenced as a juvenile, receiving a fine and the maximum incarceration available: detention until his 21st birthday. Prior to this conviction, Anthony -- described by Duniver and other neighbors as a polite, considerate boy who takes care of other kids in the neighborhood -- had only ever served detention at school for not turning in his homework on time.A Rash of ConfessionsIn 1998, Chicago police arrested two boys, aged 7 and 8, for the sexual molestation and murder of 11-year-old Ryan Harris after they supposedly confessed to Detective James Cassidy. Crime scene evidence later exonerated the children and revealed the true adult culprit.Four years earlier, the very same detective elicited a confession from an 11-year-old accused of killing an elderly neighbor twice his size. The boy was convicted on the basis of the confession, although psychologists who examined the boy were so sure he didn't commit the crime and appalled by the lack of evidence that they recommended he be given probation. Cassidy conducted both interrogations without a parent, attorney or youth services representative present.When 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe from Escondido, Calif., was found murdered, the police suspected and grilled her 14-year-old brother and his two 15-year-old friends. In order to elicit confessions, the police used typical cop show lies on the kids, telling the brother that blood was found in his room and another kid that he was being made out to be the patsy for the crime. Two of the boys confessed, although charges against all three were dropped when DNA from the victim was found on a transient's shirt.In Texas, 11-year-old LaCresha Murray was convicted as an adult of murdering a 2-year-old child in her home based on a coerced and probably false confession. LaCresha's conviction was overturned on appeal because of unlawful interrogation practices.In 1998, the Kansas Supreme Court found a confession elicited from a 10-year-old child accused of raping another child with his finger to be such a gross injustice that they ruled it inadmissible. What's more, it was then used as the force behind what is now known as Brandon's Law, which prevents the questioning of anyone under the age of 14 without a parent or legal guardian present. Unfortunately for Brandon, while being detained in a juvenile facility for the crime of rape, he himself was raped. His name has since been cleared, but the damage was already done.At-Risk YouthWhile the police see nothing wrong with using the same interrogation techniques with juveniles that they use on accused adults, both legal and psychological experts agree that such techniques, designed to break down a suspect's will, are inappropriate and damaging to children. They also say that a juvenile's ability to understand Miranda rights -- such as the right not to answer questions or to ask for an attorney -- is lacking, making it impossible for a child to knowingly waive them."The type of coercive techniques police are trained to use on adults shouldn't be used on children," says Steven Drizin, professor and supervising attorney for Northwestern University School of Law's Children and Family Justice Clinic. "That kind of leading questioning is absolutely the worst way to get truthful information from children." Drizin is currently leading the appeal for the Chicago youth convicted of murdering his elderly neighbor.Research done over the course of 15 years by Stephen Ceci at Cornell University has demonstrated that the type of techniques used by Vaughn and Cassidy -- suggestive questioning, repetition, hints of rewards and punishments -- make the likelihood of a false confession greater when the person being interrogated is a child.Other psychologists who specialize in this field, like defense expert witness Richard Ofshe and Thomas Grisso, a researcher in the department of forensic training and research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, concur that juveniles simply don't have the psychological resources to withstand such questioning. Ofshe, who was an expert witness in the Stephanie Crowe murder case as well as Anthony's, maintains that children under the age of 14 are unable to understand the abstractions presented by Miranda rights, much less the potential long-term consequences they could face by waiving them.Drizin says his current client was told he would be forgiven like "God forgives you" if he confessed, and adds that his client was anxious to get to a birthday party he was missing during the hours-long questioning. He says that there are cases where children have confessed to crimes simply because they wanted to go home. Like many other advocates for children's justice, Drizin believes police should be required to keep an attorney on hand for all youth questioning, since even parents might not have their child's best legal interest at heart unless they are aware of the intentions of the police.Because Chicago has been in the public eye due to the controversial confessions elicited by Detective James Cassidy, the Police Department there has announced that now it intends to videotape the final version of all confessions, adult and juvenile. But, according to both Ofshe and Drizin, this measure is flawed since it won't tell the story of what led up to the confession.Another Chance for AnthonyAfter it garnered national media attention, Drizin was drawn to the Anthony Harris case because of its broader legal implications. While the supposed confession elicited from Anthony is almost a textbook example of the type of coerced statements he is familiar with, Drizin says Anthony's case is unique because an audio record exists of the questioning, which shows the techniques used by Vaughn on the boy.The confession is, as Drizin calls it, the golden nugget or Holy Grail of the courtroom. Tarnishing it, like tarnishing the reputation of the police who produced it, is not an easy task. The police believe they are doing the right thing, even when that means lying to suspects or misleading them by calling an interrogation a pre-test interview in order to gain the parent's cooperation.So important is Anthony's case to the larger cause of juvenile justice, Drizin took it upon himself to help Anthony find counsel for his appeal. Cleveland attorneys Daniel Warren and Geoff Mearns, of Thompson, Hine & Flory, signed on to help Anthony pro bono. Last November, they filed a 60-page brief detailing seven separate aspects of Anthony's trial they feel either require a reversal of Judge Kate's decision or a retrial with a new judge."This is a case that has national significance," Drizin says. "What is so striking about Anthony's alleged confession is all of the 'uh-huhs' and one-word answers in the transcript and how many times his answers simply pick up from the last thing that [Vaughn] says."According to Mearns, a three-judge panel will most likely rule on Anthony's appeal sometime in the spring. For Anthony -- who will remain incarcerated throughout the appeals process -- the future is uncertain, at the mercy of a legal system that denies jury trials to juveniles as well as the most basic civil rights expected by an adult.As for Lori Duniver, she filed a $5 million suit against Cyndi Harris and has since moved from the apartment complex where they were once neighbors. It's possible she wanted to escape the stigma she feels in New Philadelphia for being perceived as a neglectful parent. She also may have moved to be closer to her boyfriend, Jamie Redman. At the time of Devan's murder, Duniver wasn't able to see much of Redman because of a restraining order placed on him after he was charged with kidnapping Devan for three days in 1997. Despite this well-known fact, the police never seriously looked at him as a possible suspect.

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