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Do police interrogators knowingly lie to minors to gain confessions that might be false?
The answer, at least sometimes, appears to be yes. And now some states are taking steps to halt the practice.
In July, the governors of Illinois and Oregon signed bills into law making their states the first to bar police from lying to minors during questioning. In New York, a similar bill would go even further, barring police interrogators from lying to anyone.
The Innocence Project, which focuses on freeing the wrongfully convicted, has been one of the primary movers behind these efforts. According to that organization, police lying to minors is a widespread problem that has caused a large number of false confessions among that age group. It has played a role in 30% of false confessions that were later overturned by DNA evidence, the organization says.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of deceptive tactics by police investigators in 1969, with Frazier v. Cupp. In that case, murder suspect Martin Frazier confessed when police interrogators falsely told him that a cousin seen with him the night of the killing had already confessed to a role in the murder and implicated him.
After his conviction, Frazier appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices upheld the lower court ruling. "The fact that the police misrepresented the statement that (the cousin) has made is, while relevant, insufficient in our view to make this otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible," the court concluded.
Courts do place some limits on the legal power of police to extract confessions through deception. But in general, the practice apparently is common and includes making false promises of leniency or false claims about the existence of incriminating evidence.
In any event, it's begun to draw critical attention from those who see the evidence of wrongful convictions. One of them is Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who wrote a New York Times op/ed piece in support of the New York bill (mentioned above) in which he concluded that it's time to halt the practice.
In addition to reducing the likelihood that innocent people will be incarcerated, Kassin offered another argument: "In August, for the first time since Gallup began tracking the question 27 years ago, a majority of Americans said they lacked confidence in the police. Senate Bill S324 offers a step toward regaining that trust."
In Illinois and Oregon, backers of the new laws point to the DNA numbers and say it's time to at least halt the practice with minors.