Juveniles and the Mentally Disabled More Likely to Give False Confessions

Studies and surveys have found that both minors and the mentally impaired are more likely to make false confessions, in part because they are more vulnerable to suggestion. A recent study conducted by Northwestern University law professor Steve Drizin and UC Irvine criminologist Richard Leo examined 125 cases in which individuals were exonerated after giving false confessions. The researchers found that 32% of the cases involved minors and 22% of the cases involved individuals with mental retardation. “They are more likely to go along, agree and comply with authority figures - to say what the police want them to say - than the general population,” notes Emory University professor Morgan Cloud, who co-wrote another study that found that the mentally impaired - even those who with mild forms of mental retardation - are largely incapable of understanding police admonitions of their right to remain silent and to have an attorney.
A study published in the University of Chicago Law Review examining comprehension of Miranda rights found that only 27% of disabled persons understood that confessions can be used against a suspect, while 91% of nondisabled persons understood this concept. Disabled subjects were also found to be far less likely to understand that police cannot threaten suspects, that police and judges cannot force suspects to talk, and that there is no penalty for remaining silent. While juveniles and those with mental impairments are most likely to succumb to psychological pressure and make erroneous admissions during intense police interrogations, experts note that even the able-minded are at risk. Social scientists and legal experts say the best way to ensure that confessions or admissions are truthful is to require detectives to tape them from the Miranda warning in the first interview until the end of all subsequent interviews. Some states, including Alaska and Minnesota, already require this type of videotaping. UC Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe notes that video or voice recordings of confessions would reduce false confessions by as much as 90% because it would stop coercive tactics that are sometimes used by police. (Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2004). See Innocence and Juveniles.

Arkansas Execution Stayed, Raising New Legal Questions

The execution of Rickey Dale Newman in Arkansas, scheduled for the night of September 28, was stayed by the state Supreme Court. Newman had waived his appeals. Nevertheless, there is evidence that he may be mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that people with mental retardation cannot be executed. Newman’s case raises the question of whether a third party can intervene to request a stay of execution, even though the defendant does not want to appeal but is mentally retarded. (DPIC; also Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sept. 29, 2004).

The Angolite Highlights Long Road to Clemency for Man with Mental Retardation

The Angolite, a news magazine produced by inmates at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary, highlights the commutation of Herbert Welcome, a man with mental retardation whose death sentence was lifted by Governor Mike Foster in 2003. The article follows Welcome’s decades-long struggle to have his sentence commuted, including a 1988 recommendation for clemency that was never signed. Years later, Welcome’s clemency effort was reignited by his attorneys from the Center for Equal Justice in New Orleans and his spiritual advisor, legendary rock guitarist Larry Howard. It gained ground after the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia making it unconstitutional to execute those with mental retardation. In all, Welcome spent 21 years on death row before the Louisiana Pardons Board unanimously voted to recommend clemency during a hearing ordered by Governor Foster. The Angolite article includes an overview of the clemency hearing statements delivered by experts such as Robert Perske, as well as a case overview by WelomeÕs attorney, Nick Trenticosta. (The Angolite, May/June 2003) See Resources.

Alabama’s Death Penalty Problems Continue

Questions about the accuracy and fairness of Alabama’s death penalty continue to surface as illustrated by a series of recent federal court rulings granting two new trials and one new sentencing hearing. All of the rulings were based on inadequate representation provided to the defendants. “Counsel simply provided no defense to the death penalty,” Chief U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham wrote March 31 in giving one of the inmates a new trial. The man has been on death row 22 years. Most of Alabama’s death row inmates were convicted when the state had extremely low caps on indigent defense fees at trial. In addition, the state has not modified its law to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia (regarding the mentally retarded), and maintains that no changes are needed to comply with Ring v. Arizona (regarding the jury’s role in determining death eligibility). Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama defense attorney and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, noted: “What that means is that every month, every season, more people are being tried and sentenced to death in what are probably unconstitutional procedures. Rather than deal with it now and save family members of victims, and taxpayers, prosecutors and defense lawyers all the agony of years of appeals, we’re acting as if it’s not a problem.” Moreover, he said, “We’re the only state that does nothing to make sure Death Row prisoners get legal representation to pursue their post-conviction appeals. And the reason why that’s a huge deal is that many innocent Death Row prisoners, those prisoners whose convictions have been illegally obtained, have proved their innocence or the illegality of those convictions in these post-conviction appeals.” (Associated Press, May 2, 2004) See Supreme Court, Representation, and Innocence.