Central Park Five: ‘We must change how we interrogate youth’

Will it take another Central Park Five?

We can avoid another Central Park Five. We can avoid another $40 million settlement. And we can avoid another group of teenagers being jailed because of false confessions, by changing the way police interrogate children.

The societal and financial costs of false confessions are staggering.

In 1989, five teenagers were convicted in the high-profile attack and rape of the Central Park Jogger after making confessions they soon recanted. Each served prison time. In fact, a serial rapist (Matias Reyes) was found responsible for the crime and the five convictions were vacated in 2002. For more than a decade, a civil rights lawsuit filed by the five men, now in their 40s, was in legal limbo. Recently, reports surfaced of a $40 million dollar settlement with New York City – part of the hefty financial cost that began with the juveniles’ false confessions and ended in a miscarriage of justice. This does not factor the cost of incarcerating these five men for the cumulative 40 years, which cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per inmate, per year.

There is also a significant societal cost, and not just for the five. Reyes raped again – multiple times – while the Central Park 5 were being prosecuted. He murdered a pregnant woman. Public confidence in the justice system is also at risk, especially when vulnerable members of society (in this case 14- to 16-year-olds, one of whom was developmentally disabled) suffer.

The convictions of the Central Park Five “rested almost entirely on the statements made by the defendants” (People v. Kharey Wise et al., 2002). Their statements following 14 to 30 hours of interrogation – only portions of which were shown to jurors – were richly detailed and persuasive despite being false, highly inconsistent with each other, and largely inconsistent with the physical evidence and known facts of the crime.

Desmond Cadogan holds up a sign during a rally in support of the Central Park Five in New York January 17, 2013. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Desmond Cadogan holds up a sign during a rally in support of the Central Park Five in New York January 17, 2013. Carlo Allegri/Reuters


Unfortunately, the Central Park Five case is not an isolated incident – not even in its involvement of multiple false confessions about the same crime. We now have ample research evidence from DNA exoneration cases and the scientific laboratory yielding a very clear conclusion: Youth are especially vulnerable to providing false confessions to the police. In our recent study of almost 200 incarcerated juveniles, over a third reported providing a false confession to police or a false guilty plea at least once. Many of them did so because they felt pressured or thought they would be treated more leniently. As Kharey Wise said, “I just wanted to go home. I told [the NYPD] what I thought would get me out of there.”

Several of the basic psychological principles that make teens ineligible for the death penalty also increase their vulnerability in the interrogation room. Adolescents are more impulsive, obedient to authority, suggestible, and susceptible to social and peer influence than adults. They make immature judgments and are less able to reason about the long vs. short-term consequences of their behavior, especially when risk and reward are involved.

Many of these characteristics stem from anatomical brain differences between adolescents and adults and make them no match for common interrogation tactics like repeated accusations, minimizing the seriousness of the crime, playing suspects off one another, lengthy questioning, and deceit (e.g., presentation of false evidence).

Yet, in the United States, juvenile suspects are generally allowed to be interrogated just like adults. These procedures ignore, and sometimes even exploit, their developmental vulnerabilities. Unlike interviews with young victims/witnesses, what we know about child development goes out the window for young suspects like the Central Park 5. Most youth in our study reported experiencing high pressure interrogations without lawyers present, findings which are consistent with police surveys and videotaped interrogations. For example, more than 80 percent reported receiving threats from police, including the possibility of being raped or killed in jail (e.g., They said I would be someone’s bitch in prison).

Once a confession is secured, even a false one, a conviction is almost certain. To avoid another Central Park Five, we must change how we interrogate youth. We must take into account their well-established developmental limitations and ensure that law enforcement, attorneys, judges, and jurors are fully aware of how development can play a significant role when making “high stakes” decisions in the interrogation room.

By Lindsay C. Malloy, Ph.D.


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