Murder Case Debacle May Spur Changes

Jack Kresnak
October 1, 1998

Semen on a blue dress may bring down a president. Semen on the panties of a dead little girl may change the way police question children suspected of crimes.

The changes are being debated after a debacle in which police made international headlines by charging two boys, aged seven and eight, in the murder of an 11-yer-old girl – only to have the charges dismissed last month amid scientific evidence and doubts about the boys’ confessions.

A Cook County Juvenile Court judge threw out the charges after prosecutors disclosed that semen had been found on the dead girl’s panties. Since boys that young are not believed capable of producing the bodily fluid, they could not have committed the sex crime that apparently accompanied the July 27 murder.

Now police and child advocates are asking questions, such as: What are the rules for interviewing juvenile crime suspects? And why don’t police routinely videotape these interviews, just as they tape interviews with sex abuse victims?

What happened in Chicago may have happened in any American city or town—because Chicago police followed practices that are typical in police departments around the country. Although police in several cities take some extra precautions when interviewing child suspects, there are no standard national guidelines. The care taken to protect the integrity of interviews with child abuse victims has not been transferred to interviewing youthful crime suspects.

Risky Interviews

Interviewing child suspects is risky. “A lot of times kids will say whatever you want them to say because they’re tired of being there and they want to leave the interrogation room,” said Detective David Berglund of the Los Angeles Police Juvenile Division.

With “all children, particularly the younger children, there is an unconscious need, sometimes even a conscious need, to agree with what they think or believe the person interrogating them wants them to believe,” said Dr. Sander Breiner, associate professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, who has studied techniques of interviewing small children. Breiner said most police departments are not trained to interview young children, and that professionals trained in child development and interview techniques should be called in to assist police.

Most police appear to agree that Miranda warnings have to be given to children, and police should not interview children without parental permission. “We cannot take a statement from a juvenile without a parent’s consent,” said Philadelphia Juvenile Police Officer Mary Lawson.

Berglund said officers in California give suspects under age 14 their Miranda warnings and the go through a so-called “Gladys R.” form to help offices evaluate the cognitive ability of children. “Under Gladys R., we ask certain question,” Berglund said.

“Do you know the difference between right and wrong? What have your parents taught you? What happens when you do something wrong?”

Berglund said that is done in part to find out if the children’s statements can be trusted and also to prevent defense attacks on such statements in court. He admits that such judgments are often subjective.

In the Chicago case, police gave the boys “kiddie Miranda” warnings—the standard Miranda warning in language the detective believed the boys could understand. The boys’ parents gave permission for the interviews.

Value of Video

Now Chicago police are rethinking the way they treat juvenile suspects, and the State’s Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes such cases, says it will begin videotaping interviews with children suspected of serious felonies. That move may spread to police departments around the country.

“This case, more than any other case, sees to have galvanized public opinion in favor of videotaping,” said Steven Drizin, of the Northwestern University Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center.

The case also is important because so many children at ever younger ages being tried in adult courts, Drizin said. “Many of these children do not understand their Miranda warning and most don’t have the judgment to decide whether or not to give them up,” he said. “So, you have a lot of essentially disabled juveniles going into adult court after their rights have been violated.”

Drizin is working with a group of attorneys on proposals to change police procedures toward juvenile suspects. The proposal includes videotaping and parental involvement, although he has found that many parents participate in coercing their children to confess.

Recommendations will include not allowing children to waive their Miranda rights, and using teams of prosecutors to work with police early in the process on serious felonies involving juveniles. The current practice in Cook County, Drizin said, is for prosecutors to have virtually no involvement in juvenile cases until after police have completed their work.

“If prosecutors had been involved in this case early, it’s possible they wouldn’t have filed first-degree murder charges and the police probably wouldn’t have held a press conference [announcing the arrests] before the case appeared in court,” Drizin said.

Deborah Daro, research director for the Chicago-based National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, said videotaping interviews with children who may have been abused is a preferred method. She sees no reason why that should not be extended to interviews with children who may have committed a crime.

“It allows us to look at exactly what happened in the interview process,” Daro said. “It also protects the child from having to repeat the story over and over and over again.”

The Confessions

The lack of a videotape leaves only the police reports for clues as to how the interviews were done. Some excerpts:

“General conversation took place with the child, including subjects such as his favorite sport, what he liked to do, how old he was and if he was looking forward to going to school,” reads the report on the interview with the youngest boy. “A short conversation concerning basketball took place. [The child] was then asked if he knew the difference between the truth and a lie. They boy said you should never lie.”

Moments later, the boy “was asked to hold the [detectives’] hands because we were all friends. The child immediately took [Detective Cassidy’s] right hand with his left hand and [Detective Allan Nathaniel’s] right hand with his right hand.

The boy purportedly told police that the other boy had thrown rocks at the girl and knocked her off the bike. But he didn’t describe anyone hitting the girl with a brick, which the police said was the murder weapon. He said he rubbed leaves on her body.

They boy was then given a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

The older boy was told he “didn’t have to talk” and that his mother could be in the room. He also was told that “to lie was wrong—good boys don’t lie.” The detective asked him if he was a good boy and the child said “Yes.”

“It’s very, very scary,” said Mark Soler, director of the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. “Every parent of a seven- or eight-year-old knows that when they get in trouble they can be tremendously suggestible and no one in his right mind can think that a so-called confession from a seven- or eight-year-old under those circumstances would be reliable.”

Kresnak, Jack. "Murder Case Debacle May Spur Changes." Youth Today, October 1998, p. 40.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.