False Confessions and Children

Researchers in the area of wrongful convictions have found that children are particularly susceptible to giving false confessions.[1] Once in custody, children’s psychological development, intellectual difficulties, and mental health issues make them vulnerable to coercive police interrogation tactics, which often leads children to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit.[2]

During interrogations, police often use the same coercive interrogation strategies on children that they use on adults.[3] This results in children not only being more likely to waive their Miranda rights than adults, but also being more likely to falsely confess to crimes than adults.[4] The most commonly used interrogation technique in the United States, the Reid technique, inherently coerces and deceives suspects.[5] This inherent nature of the Reid technique combined with children’s vulnerabilities and susceptibilities “has led to an unacceptably high rate of false confessions among juvenile suspects.”[6] According to the National Registry of Exonerations, thirty-four percent of exonerated children under the age of eighteen falsely confessed to a crime compared to ten percent of adults.[7] Other studies of exonerees have found that forty-four percent of children falsely confessed to a crime “compared to 13 percent of adults.”[8] As these studies show, children have a much higher likelihood to falsely confess to crimes when confronted with the same interrogation tactics used against adults.

Children with certain vulnerabilities, such as younger children, children with mental illness, or children with intellectual disabilities, also have higher rates of falsely confessing compared to other children.  For example, a higher percentage of children under the age of fourteen falsely confessed to a crime compared to sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children.[9] Research by the National Registry of Exonerations also showed a difference in false confessions between children with mental illness or intellectual disability and children without either disability. The vast majority (79 percent) of children under the age of eighteen who had a mental illness or intellectual disability falsely confessed.[10] While only about a quarter (27 percent) of children without a mental illness or intellectual disability falsely confessed to a crime.[11] These vulnerabilities result in many children waiving their Miranda rights without truly understanding “what they are giving up” and the potential consequences for waiving their rights, such as false confessions.[12]


[1] Ariel Spierer, The Right to Remain a Child: The Impermissibility of the Reid Technique in Juvenile Interrogations, 92 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1719, 1723 (2017).

[2] Jason Mandelbaum & Angela Crossman, No illusions: Developmental considerations in adolescent false confessions, Am. Psych. Ass’n (Dec. 2014), https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2014/12/adolescent-false-confessions.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Spierer, supra note 1 at 1719.

[6] Id.

[7] Age and Mental Status of Exonerated Defendants Who Confessed, Nat’l Registry of Exonerations (Apr. 2022) https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Age%20and%20Mental%20Status%20FINAL%20CHART.pdf.

[8] Mandelbaum & Crossman, supra note 2.

[9] According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 78 percent of exonerated children under the age of fourteen falsely confessed to the crime. This compares to 54 percent of exonerated fourteen- and fifteen-year-old children and 27 percent of exonerated 16- and 17-year-old children. Age and Mental Status of Exonerated Defendants Who Confessed, National Registry of Exonerations (Feb. 2019) https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Age%20and%20Mental%20Status%20FINAL%20CHART.pdf.

[10] Age and Mental Status of Exonerated Defendants Who Confessed, Nat’l Registry of Exonerations (Apr. 2022) https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Age%20and%20Mental%20Status%20FINAL%20CHART.pdf.

[11] Id.

[12] M. Dyan McGuire, Miranda is not Enough: What Every Parent in the United States Should Know About Protecting Their Child, 2J. of L. and Crim. Just. 299, 303 (2014)

Children’s Vulnerability During Police Interrogations: The Story of Michael Crowe

The story of Michael Crowe, a 14-year-old child, exemplifies why children need protections during police interrogations. Michael’s traumatic involvement with the criminal justice system began on the night of January 20, 1998 when someone snuck into Stephanie Crowe’s bedroom and stabbed her to death.[1] Police questioned the entire Crowe family the following day, including Michael, Stephanie’s brother.[2] The police read Michael his Miranda rights before questioning him about the murder.[3] However, Michael waived his Miranda rights and spoke with the detectives without an attorney or parent present.[4]

Detectives ignored the fact that on the night of Stephanie’s murder neighbors called the police several times.[5] Neighbors reported that a man was bothering residents and broke into a home in the Crowe’s neighborhood looking for a girl.[6] Detectives had the wrong suspect, but they nonetheless continued to focus their attention on Michael, interrogating him four times.[7]

In the first interview on January 21, 1998, Michael told police that he awoke with a headache around 4:30 a.m. on the morning after Stephanie was murdered, took Tylenol, and went back to his room.[8] Michael retold the same story when police interviewed him for the second time on January 22nd.[9] During the second interrogation, Michael also spoke about how seeing his sister “soaked in blood” the next morning made him cry.[10] He described her as “the best person” and “kind.” Michael expressed anger towards the killer.[11]

            Later that day, police interviewed Michael for a third time for three hours even though he expressed “that he felt sick” at the beginning.[12] Michael once again repeated what he told police during his first and second interviews and said:

I feel like I just … I spent all day away from my family. I couldn’t see them… I feel like I’m being treated like I killed my sister, and I didn’t. It feels horrible, like I’m being blamed for it … Everything I have is gone. Everything. You won’t even let me see my parents. It’s horrible.[13]

Detectives ignored Michael’s pleas and continued to interrogate him by giving a computer stress voice analyzer test.[14] Detectives told Michael that the test proved he was deceiving them and questioned whether there was something he was “blocking out” in his “subconscious mind.”[15] Michael continued to deny that he murdered his sister even as detectives pressured him about whether he needed to confess something.[16] Detectives began to tell Michael that police “found blood in his room, lifted fingerprints off the blood stains, and that the police” knew he killed Stephanie.[17] As Michael repeatedly denied killing his sister, detectives told him that maybe he simply did not remember killing his sister.[18] An emotional and confused Michael asked the detective “if he was sure” that he had killed his sister. To which the detective responded, “‘I’m sure about the evidence. Absolutely.’”[19]

            Finally, detectives interviewed Michael for a fourth time for over six hours on January 23, 1998.[20] Detectives used various interrogation tactics to make Michael confess.[21] Detectives again told Michael that the police had evidence which proved he murdered Stephanie.[22] The detectives also played a “game” with Michael that forced Michael to explain crime scene evidence, but with a rule that Michael could not say “‘I don’t know.’”[23] Detectives continued to tell Michael that he killed Stephanie and he did not remember and “introduced the idea that there were ‘two Michaels,’ a ‘good Michael’ and a ‘bad Michael.’”[24] Finally, detectives told Michael “if he confessed he would get help rather than go to jail.”[25] The detectives continued to pressure Michael into confessing, which resulted in the following exchange:

  1. If I tell you a story, the evidence is going to be a complete lie.

Q. Well, then, tell us the story.

A. Well, I’ll lie. I’ll have to make it up.

Q. Tell us the story, Michael.

A. You want me to tell you a little story?

Q. Tell us the story. What happened that night?

A. Okay. I’m going to warn you right now. It is a complete lie.

Q. Tell us the story.

A. Okay. This is true. I am extremely jealous of my sister.

Q. Okay.

A. She’s always had a lot of friends and good friends and stuff like that. She was friends with people my age, all the popular girls and stuff like that. That’s true. Okay…Okay. Here is the part where I’ll start lying. That night I thought about her. I couldn’t take it anymore. Okay. So I got a knife, went into her room and I stabbed her….

Q. How many times did you stab her?

A. It’s going to be a lie. Three times…

Q. Tell me what the truth is.

A. The only reason I’m trying to lie here is because you presented me with two paths. I’d rather die than go to jail.[26]

The detectives finally had what they saw as a confession and proceeded with criminal charges against Michael.[27] Michael’s story stands as a testament to why the legal community and society as a whole must fight to ensure that the legal injustice, psychological manipulation, and emotional trauma Michael endured during police interrogations does not happen to any other child.


[1] Crowe v. Cty. of San Diego, 608 F.3d 406, 417 (9th Cir. 2010).

[2] Id. at 418.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 417.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 418-419.

[8] Id. at 418.

[9] Id. at 418-419.

[10] Id. at 419.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 420.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 420-421.

[24] Id. at 421.

[25] Id. at 422.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

Reporting Abuse with the Abuser Present: How a Minnesota Law Continues to Traumatize Child Abuse Victims

Maya White came forward to report that her father was abusing her when she was a sixth-grader. Maya soon realized that she would have to report the abuse while in the presence of her father. In her own words, Maya, now 15 years old, explained that “not only did I have to tell my story to complete strangers, but I was also forced to do so in front of my abuser.”

No child should have to report the abuse they endured in the presence of their abuser. Unfortunately, children who suffer child abuse in Minnesota are often forced to report the abuse they experience in front of their abuser because Minnesota does not grant “children the right to be interviewed separately from their guardians when reporting abuse – even if the guardian is the alleged abuser,” according to the Minnesota House of Representatives

Maya is using her voice to call for a change, stating that “no child should have to go through the same experience that I did.” Minnesota lawmakers, including Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL – Roseville), agree. Rep. Becker-Finn sponsored a new Minnesota law, HF3971, referred to as “Maya’s Law,” which would require that child welfare interviews occur without the alleged abuser being present. To force children to tell child welfare investigators their experiences of abuse with alleged abusers present “is incredibly problematic,” argued Rep. Becker-Finn. She continued by saying that “it does not allow us to really get to the heart of what’s going on to keep children protected.”

The Minnesota House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee approved the bill on March 17, 2022. The bill was then sent to Minnesota’s House Human Services Finance and Policy Committee. If the bill becomes law, officials (1) would no longer interview children with their abuser present, (2) would interview the child before interviewing the alleged abuser or the child’s guardian or school officials, (3) would allow officials to interview the child without a guardian’s permission, and (4) require that interviews with children in foster care who are five years of age or older occur without the foster parents being present.