Who Stole the Cookie From the Cookie Jar?

The best way to interrogate a child.

In Arizona juvenile interrogation, the state carries the burden of proof
In Arizona juvenile interrogation, the state carries the burden of proof

An 8-year-old Arizona boy charged with murdering his father and another man appeared in court on Monday. Police say the boy confessed to shooting the two men with a .22-caliber gun, but his defense attorneys told reporters that “there could have been improper interview techniques done.” What’s the “proper” way to interrogate a kid?

With kid gloves. Based on the principle that juvenile suspects may not fully comprehend a Miranda warning, most states mandate some form of added protection for children under the age of 16. In at least 20 states, police must notify the child’s guardian before questioning; and in at least 13 states, either a parent or an attorney must be present.

Under Arizona law, the state carries the “burden of proof” in juvenile interrogation cases. That is, there’s a presumption that the child’s statements were made involuntarily unless a preponderance of evidence indicates otherwise. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in State v. Jimenez that in determining whether a confession was voluntary (and therefore admissible), a court should evaluate the child’s age, education, background, and intelligence, plus whether the child’s parents were present, whether he was in good mental and physical health during the interrogations, and whether he has a mental illness.

There’s evidence to suggest that juvenile suspects are more likely than adults to make a false confession. A 2004 study of 326 exoneration cases found that 13 percent of adults had falsely confessed, compared with 44 percent of suspects under 18 years old. Among children between the ages of 12 and 15, the rate was 75 percent. After the 1989 beating and rape of a woman known as the Central Park jogger, five New York teenagers served prison sentences based on false confessions. In 1998, a 14-year-old boy named Michael Crowe admitted to stabbing his 12-year-old sister to death after he’d been interrogated for 10 hours over two days. Before the murder trial began, however, the charges were dropped, with the judge ruling that the police had made “illegal promises of leniency”—telling Michael he’d get “help” if he confessed and that he’d go to jail if he didn’t. (Click here for video footage of the interrogation.)

Law-enforcement officers are often trained to conduct interrogations using the Reid Technique, which involves direct confrontation, physical gestures to appear concerned, and preventing the accused from denying the crime outright. Practitioners are encouraged to use the same methods for children as for adults. This helps explain why children are more likely to offer up false confessions. Children, psychologists argue, are more suggestible than adults and thus more easily swayed by leading questions. They’re also more influenced by short-term guarantees—”You can go home right away if you confess”—than by longer-term consequences like 10 years in prison. Third, juveniles are more likely to display behavior that interrogators read as “deceptive,” such as saying “I swear” a lot and not making eye contact. Reformers advocate better preparation for police officers as well as mandatory recording of interrogations.

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Explainer thanks G. Daniel Lassiter of Ohio University.