It’s actually not that hard.
Josh was 17 when he was questioned by police for sexually molesting his younger sister. The little girl woke up one morning and told her dad she thought Josh may have touched her on her privates, but she wasn’t sure whether it really happened or if it was just a dream. She thought Josh may have come into her room, reached over the guardrail of the top bunk of her bed, and touched her under her nightgown inside her underwear while she slept on her stomach.
Josh’s father had been awake for much of the night. He did not see anyone go into his daughter’s bedroom. He also doubted that Josh would go in there due to the large amount of toys his sister kept by the bedroom door. The numerous stuffed animals she surrounded herself with at night were also undisturbed. He reasoned his daughter’s story was probably just a dream.
But why would she dream such a thing? Did this mean she needed therapy? Even though it seemed very unlikely that Josh had done anything to his sister, was there any cause for concern? How should a parent handle this? Josh’s father called the school counselor for a professional opinion.
Later that day a caseworker from the Department of Family Services knocked on the door. She insisted that Josh’s sister be interviewed by the Children’s Advocacy Center. Josh’s father was shocked and confused. He had called the school for guidance, and now there was a stranger at his door accusing him of allowing his son to molest his daughter?
The caseworker told him that he would be allowed to observe the CAC interview with his daughter, but that never happened.
The next day Josh was brought to the police station for questioning. He waived his right to counsel because he thought a lawyer was someone who helps an injured person in a lawsuit, like that time his grandfather fell out of a tree. Not someone who helps a suspect being questioned by police.
Josh denied that he ever touched his sister. The detective told him that if he did not admit to touching his sister he would go to jail for a very long time. She said it was better for Josh to admit this because the judge might be more lenient on him.
Josh agreed to take a lie detector test. The detective told him that the CVSA (Computerized Voice Stress Analyzer) was 100% accurate, and that he had failed the test. The detective told Josh he would be better off saying he did this because the judge would “get him some help.” Besides, she said, he was “still young with a full life ahead of him,” so a confession “would not ruin his life.”
Thinking he had no other option than to say he touched his sister or else go to jail, Josh said he may have accidentally touched her on the butt one time when the two were play wrestling.
Although his statement in no way matched the story told by his sister, Josh was charged with Statutory Sodomy and sent to jail.
Josh’s case is not unusual.
Studies of wrongful convictions show that children and adolescent are two to three times more likely to falsely confess during interrogation than adults. In a study of 125 proven false confessions, 63% of false confessors were under the age of twenty-five and 32% were under eighteen. Another study of 340 exonerations found that 42% of juveniles had falsely confessed, compared with only 13% of adults. Finally, a laboratory study found that a majority of youthful participants complied with a request to sign a false confession without protest.
Juveniles and False Confession
Why does this happen?
Juveniles are especially susceptible to the pressures of interrogation, a procedure that was originally developed and intended for adults. Additionally, many teens do not fully understand their Miranda rights.
Children and adolescents interpret and respond to situations and social cues differently than adults do. They are responsive to the inherent power of adults, making them more vulnerable to social pressures and compliant with authority.
Because their brains are still developing, adolescents differ from adults in how they process information. Adults use their frontal cortex when making decisions, which is the part of the brain responsible for judgment, self-control, and executive functioning. The frontal lobes of a teenaged brain do not fully mature until late adolescence.
Teenagers process information through their limbic system, which handles instinctive and impulsive reactions. The limbic system is responsible for the fight or flight response, and it is the part of the brain that is activated during a panic attack. This is why teenagers tend to be more emotional, impulsive, and willing to take risks.
Due to differences in maturity and cognitive development, adolescents find negative feedback and interrogative pressure more difficult to resist than adults. Teenagers also tend to be higher in suggestibility and have a greater propensity to use inappropriate “escape” strategies when interviewed by police.
As a result of their developmental differences, certain police interrogation practices, such as lengthy interrogations, the use of threats or promises, and the presentation of false evidence should be avoided because teenagers are not fully psychologically equipped to deal with the demand characteristics of such situations.
teenagers are not fully psychologically equipped to deal with the demand characteristics of interrogations.
Although Josh was not interrogated for hours, he was promised leniency if he confessed and he was presented with false evidence that he had failed a test that was 100% accurate. The truth is that the CVSA has an accuracy rate of no better than chance when it comes to the detection of deception.
Josh spent three years in jail before his attorney succeeded in having the charge dismissed. That part of his case was unusual because confessions lead to convictions, even whey they’re false, 80% of the time.