Cateresa Matthews was only 14 when she was brutally raped and murdered in Illinois in 1991 – and police botched her investigation. They sent five innocent boys to prison scapegoating justice for her family. In 2012, after spending a cumulative 78 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, all five were exonerated by DNA evidence.
The wrongful conviction happened because police coerced a false confession from 14 year old Robert Veal, who had no attorney or parent present during his interrogation. You can find plenty more examples from all over the country at Innocence Project. But now, things are changing in Illinois and Oregon to prevent any cases like this in the future. And other states should follow suit.
Illinois Governor J.B Pritzker signed Senate Bill 2122 into law in July, around the same time Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed off on Senate Bill 418 to ban police from lying to juveniles during interrogations. They are currently the only two states to pass legislation to ban juvenile deception by police. Every state should follow its lead to protect young people.
The story above may sound vaguely familiar to those who’ve watched the popular Netflix series “When They See Us.” It accounts the true story of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers who were manipulated by police into falsley confessing to attacking and raping a Central Park jogger in 1989. All five were exonerated after the real rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed, but only after they each suffered a range of 5-15 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.
Americans are taught the criminal justice system exists to keep people safe, but stories like this show us that’s not necessarily how it works. The criminal justice system robbed these young men of their liberty, labelled them as dangerous criminals to be harassed by the media and the public. And that’s not even touching the surface of the mental and emotional trauma they suffered from the manipulation and humiliation this injustice caused them and their families.
No one should ever endure wrongful incarceration – especially kids. According to the Innocence Project, police deception contributed to “30% of all wrongful convictions overturned by DNA.”
States have the opportunity — and a precedent — to help prevent this from happening. This seems like a no brainer. Legislators should jump at the chance to do so.
Some may argue that preserving law enforcement’s ability to lie is a valuable legal tool to gain convictions. They may believe that in certain circumstances, especially serious criminal matters, means justify the ends. In practicality, this logic is admitting that conviction wins are worth it, even with the risk of occasional false convictions, so long as the public is kept safe. But this is a horribly dangerous collectivist argument to make when considering the principles the American government and justice system were founded on in the first place: individual liberties. It’s the antithesis to true accountability, which would require the government to convict only those who’ve been proven to be criminals.
Aside from preventing false convictions, there’s also an ethical argument to be made in favor of banning police deception of juveniles. It goes without saying that children are vulnerable, and generally trusting of adults. They’re probably especially trusting of authority figures with a state sanctioned uniform, a badge, and a gun. And this makes perfect sense. After all, kids are routinely taught that lying is wrong, and that police are good. Why would they ever question police intentions or truthfulness?
Children don’t realize that cops are only there to keep you safe until the moment they suspect you’ve committed a crime. This puts them on uneven footing when it comes to police interrogation. Legally-backed deception from those in authority, who know full well just how persuasive a cop can seem to a kid, is therefore unethical. And it’s especially unethical if you know for a fact that this is how kids get wrongfully convicted.
Lying is a good tactic to manipulate people into believing and acting how the deceiver would like. But it’s also an unethical practice, and police should hold themselves to a higher standard. More than anyone, police understand the importance of criminal accountability. For this reason, they should fully support banning lying that results in children falsely confessing crimes.