At the age of 14, Michael Crowe, along with two 15-year-old friends, was charged with fatally stabbing his sister, Stephanie, at their Escondido home.
After several hours of nearly non-stop interrogations, Crowe and one friend confessed.
Later, a judge ruled the questionings psychologically abusive and coercive. But it wasn’t until a year after the killing that the charges were dropped — and only then because DNA tests found Stephanie’s blood on the sweatshirt of a mentally ill homeless man who had been in the neighborhood.
Yet, it still took until last year, 15 years after being formally charged, for Michael’s name to be formally cleared.
Beginning in 2014, juveniles who find themselves in the same situation as Michael and his friends will have new protections against false confessions. On Jan. 1, 2014, legislation I authored, Senate Bill 569, will require all custodial interrogations of juveniles charged with homicide to be electronically video recorded.
My new law is exactly the kind of safeguard that would have protected Michael and his friend from their false confessions. Instead, Michael was the victim of a wrongful charge and the real killer was allowed to roam free for another year — endangering us all.
As highlighted by Michael’s case, three injustices can result from false confessions.
• An innocent person is incarcerated.
• Criminal investigations end and the real perpetrator remains free to commit similar crimes, or worse.
• Victims’ families are subjected to double trauma: The loss or injury of a loved one, plus the guilt over conviction of an innocent person.
A national study conducted by professor Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan identified false confessions extracted during police questioning of suspects as the second-most frequent cause of wrongful conviction. In fact, more than 25 percent of the more than 290 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the U.S. have involved some form of a false confession.
As a result, it became imperative that California develop policies that enhance the fact-finding power of the criminal justice system through procedures designed to present the best quality of evidence possible in the courtroom.
With research indicating that false confessions occur with alarming frequency, juveniles remain the group most prone to wrongful convictions. Research also has demonstrated that brain development continues throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. Specifically, the brain’s frontal lobes, responsible for mature thought, reasoning, and judgment, develop last.
The truth is adolescents use their brains in a fundamentally different manner than adults. They are more likely to act on impulse, without fully considering the consequences of their decisions or actions. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized these biological and developmental differences in recent decisions on the juvenile death penalty; juvenile life without parole; and the interrogations of juvenile suspects (Roper v. Simmons; Graham v. Florida; and J.D.B. v. North Carolina, respectively).
In particular, the Supreme Court has recognized that there is a heightened risk that juvenile suspects will falsely confess when pressured by police during the interrogation process.
Research also demonstrates that juveniles in police custody do not fully understand or appreciate their rights, options or alternatives. The research of professors Drizin and Leo of the University of San Francisco School of Law suggests that false confessions are often extracted from the most vulnerable suspects.
Specifically, in a database of 125 proven false confessions compiled by Drizin and Leo, 33 percent involved confessions from juveniles, most of who confessed to brutal murders.
Further, in a more recent review of exonerations between 1989 and 2004, 42 percent of the cases of juvenile exonerees involved false confessions, compared with 13 percent of the cases of adult exonerees.
Among the youngest of these juvenile exonerees, (12- to 15-year olds), 69 percent confessed to homicides and rapes that they did not commit.
The virtue of videotaping interrogations, and its strength as a public policy, lies not only in its ability to guard against false confessions, but also in its ability to develop the strongest evidence possible to help convict the guilty. The reforms contained within SB 569, specifically the requirement to videotape the custodial interrogations of juveniles suspected of homicide, will improve criminal investigation techniques, reduce the likelihood of wrongful conviction and further the cause of justice in California.
Unfortunately, justice was late for victims like Michael Crowe.
Ted W. Lieu represents the more than 1 million residents of State Senate District 28, which includes Santa Monica.