ON SEPTEMBER 3, 2006, a 16-year-old boy named Bobby Johnson confessed to murdering a retiree in New Haven, Connecticut. In his statement, Johnson said he borrowed a gun from his cousin. Then he and a younger friend robbed the old man and shot him through the window of an idling car. Johnson pleaded guilty at trial. He was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
It was an open-and-shut case — or so it seemed.
Johnson, for instance, had an IQ of 69, but there are few legal protections for people like him. Police cannot hurt or threaten suspects, but many psychological techniques — including lying about evidence — have been widely upheld as non-coercive. Juveniles are entitled to have their parents present during an interrogation, but that doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t always help. For instance, one of the Central Park Five, a group of teenage boys who falsely confessed to the rape of a jogger in 1989, had his parents in the room for his interrogation, says Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and an expert in the study of false confessions. The boy confessed after 20 hours of interrogation, when his father suggested he just tell the cops what they wanted to hear so the family could go home.
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