On Tuesday, June 15, Oregon became the second state to pass legislation prohibiting law enforcement officers from using deception while interrogating people under the age of 18. The bill bans commonly used deceptive interrogation tactics, including false promises of leniency and false claims about the existence of incriminating evidence.
Both of these tactics have long been identified as significantly increasing the risk of false confessions, which have played a role in about 30 percent of all wrongful convictions overturned by DNA. False confessions are also the most frequent contributing factor in wrongful conviction cases involving homicides. Recent studies suggest that children under 18 are between two and three times more likely to falsely confess than adults.
This legislation is rooted in the work and expertise of the Innocence Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, and the Oregon Innocence Project, which collectively have exposed hundreds of wrongful convictions based on false confessions. The bill was originally sponsored by State Sen. Chris Gorsek (D-25), who is a former police officer, and was also sponsored and championed through the leadership of State Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-23), Sen. James Manning, Jr. (D-7), State Rep. Khanh Pham (D-46), and State Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-48). Additionally, this legislation garnered support from law enforcement organizations, including the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.
“Senate Bill 418 A expands on youth justice legislation I’ve worked on with this team in two previous legislative sessions; it requires law enforcement to tell the truth during interrogations,” said Sen. Gorsek. “As a criminal justice educator and former police officer, this is a professional standard I teach and we have reliable data showing that untruthfulness used in interviews can lead to false confessions.”
“The Innocence Project’s initial foray into false confession reform was mandating the electronic recording of interrogations — a foundational change that makes a record of what transpires in the interrogation room. Now that more than half the states have implemented this reform, we have also turned our attention to interrogation methods employed by law enforcement,” said Rebecca Brown, director of policy at the Innocence Project. “The fact that two states in short order have passed this historic legislation is a breakthrough in safeguarding against the wrongful convictions of young people and demonstrates the beginning of a national trend to address deception during interrogations.”
The passage of this legislation would not have been possible without the participation and staunch advocacy of people impacted by the use of deception in their own cases. Huwe Burton and Martin Tankleff, two exonerated men who were victims of deceptive interrogation methods. Both testified in support of this legislation. Their experiences helped convince lawmakers of the deleterious impact of deception in the interrogation room.
Burton, who wrongfully spent 19 years in prison, reacted to the vote and said, “We have the opportunity to be on the right side of history. The world will watch as we set the stage for how our children are treated by those commissioned to protect them.”
Mr. Tankleff, who spent 17 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, said, “It is my hope that with the passage of this legislation, young individuals will not suffer the type of interrogation tactics I and others have suffered. Passage of this legislation protects all, especially our community.”
“Recording gave us a window inside the interrogation room,” said Steven Drizin, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and a nationally recognized expert on false confessions. “When we’ve peered through that window over the past two decades, we’ve seen again and again how lies about evidence and false promises of leniency contribute to false confessions by youthful suspects. This is the next generation of reform; it will prevent juvenile false confessions without preventing police from obtaining true confessions.”
The newly passed bill follows recommendations made by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and global police training organizations, including leading firm Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, Inc.
This legislation would encourage law enforcement members to adopt alternative interrogation techniques commonly used in countries like the United Kingdom, where deceptive tactics have long been abandoned. These alternative methods have proven far more effective in producing reliable confessions from suspects. Yet, the vast majority of police agencies in the United States currently employ the psychologically coercive, but legally permissible, interrogation techniques that this bill would prevent when interrogating juveniles in Oregon.
“Lying in an interrogation is hypocritical and contradictory to the development of rapport, a core component in ethical and successful investigative interviews”, said Dave Thompson, CFI, and president of Wicklander-Zulawski. “Oregon is helping lead the way in the evolution of interrogation standards with the passing of this bill. This continues the trend of investigators seeking non-confrontational, research-based techniques to resolve cases while mitigating the risk of false confessions and improving trust within community-police relationships.”
"We know from hundreds of exonerations that false confessions contribute to wrongful convictions and research shows that youth are particularly susceptible to the use of deceptive interrogation tactics by police, which can lead to youth confessing to something they did not do,” said Zach Winston, policy director at the Oregon Innocence Project. “In addition, the data clearly demonstrates that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are more likely to be targeted by police as suspects and more likely to falsely confess, for reasons that stem from their communities' past experiences with police and how police treat them during an interrogation. This bill will protect Oregon youth from deceptive police interrogation tactics and make false confessions less likely to occur."
Bills addressing deceptive interrogation practices and the reliability of confessions have also been introduced in both New York and Illinois. Just two weeks ago, the Illinois bill passed the full legislature. Senate Bill 2122 now goes to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk to be signed. The New York proposal, which would ban deception not only for young people, but also for adults, is still pending — in New York alone, there have been 43 known false confession cases, including the so-called Central Park Five, who are now known as the Exonerated Five.
The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
The Oregon Innocence Project is the only project of its kind in Oregon whose sole mission is to actively track claims of innocence, investigate those claims, test DNA and other scientific evidence, and litigate where appropriate to help wrongfully convicted Oregonians clear their names.
Author: Tillamook Headlight Herald - June 23, 2021