Friday, December 23, 2011

'The law's willingness to expose kids to adult criminal penalties is downright disturbing, considering how likely kids are to be wrongfully convicted'

From the Chicago Tribune:

Keep teens out of adult criminal court

Still work to be done to protect children from hazards of adult criminal penalties

Any parent knows that teenagers want to be older than they are. They want to stay out as late as possible, they want to hang out with whomever they choose — and they don't want anyone to tell them what to do.

But despite what teenagers might think, the law recognizes that they generally aren't responsible enough to be treated like adults. Teenagers under the age of 18 can't sign legal contracts. They can't get married in some states. They can't vote or enter the military. They can't buy cigarettes or alcohol. In some states, they can't even get into a tanning bed without being accompanied by an adult, for crying out loud.

The oddball exception is criminal law, which treats teenagers like adults far too often. In Illinois, children as young as 13 can be tried as adults. If convicted, they receive stiff adult sentences, up to and including life without the opportunity for parole.

The law's willingness to expose kids to adult criminal penalties is downright disturbing, considering how likely kids are to be wrongfully convicted — and in particular, how likely they are to falsely confess. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the risk of false confession is "all the more troubling — and empirical studies show, all the more acute — when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile." Those empirical studies have found that teens are up to three times more likely than adults to falsely confess under police interrogation to crimes they never committed.

Take Robert Taylor, one of the recently exonerated Dixmoor Five. In 1992, 15-year-old Taylor was accused of participating in the rape and murder of schoolmate Cateresa Matthews. He was interrogated alone for hours by police until he agreed to sign a short confession that didn't match the facts of the crime. Taylor was initially charged in juvenile court, but Cook County prosecutors sought to transfer him to adult criminal court, where he would face a life sentence. The juvenile court judge, to his credit, noted that Taylor's confession was nonsensical: He appeared to have gotten the date of the victim's death wrong by more than two weeks. Hinting that his confession could be false, the judge refused to transfer him to adult court.

But prosecutors got the appellate court to overturn that decision, and Taylor was sent to adult court. While awaiting trial, prosecutors tested DNA taken from the victim's body and learned that it did not belong to Taylor or any of his codefendants — but prosecutors pressed forward anyway. In short order, Robert Taylor was tried, convicted and condemned to spend 80 years in prison.

Almost 20 years later, Taylor and his co-defendants were finally released after the DNA was matched to the real perpetrator: a much older convicted rapist.

It's a travesty that the system treated Taylor like an adult — and allowed him to receive adult time — when the only evidence against him was a patently unbelievable confession that was a product of his youthful vulnerabilities.

Illinois needs to change the law so that children and teenagers cannot be charged as adults when the only evidence against them is an unreliable, uncorroborated confession. And when DNA evidence is available, it should be tested before any juvenile is transferred to adult court. These are basic changes that our justice system can easily accommodate — and they would have made 20 years' worth of difference to Robert Taylor.

We adults work hard to protect our children in so many arenas, from buying alcohol to getting married to, yes, even tanning without a note from Mom. But there's work left to be done to protect innocent children from the hazards of adult criminal court. As Taylor's case shows us, exposure to the adult criminal system is one coming-of-age ritual that no innocent teenager should have to endure.

Laura H. Nirider is co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law. Nirider has represented several defendants in cases involving false or coerced confessions, including members of the Dixmoor Five and the West Memphis Three.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/ct-oped-1223-court-20111223,0,1933793.story