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Experts say false confessions come from leading questions, young suspects, high-pressure interrogations

10-28-2004 California:
.SANTA ANA, Calif. - (KRT) - The detective surveyed the grim scene that had pre-empted his morning coffee - a 12-year-old girl's slim form sprawled in her bedroom doorway, brown hair still pulled into a neat ponytail, her jeans and purple T-shirt smeared with blood. He was steeling himself for the next step in the investigation: confronting his prime suspect. ...

There were no signs of forced entry at the Crowe house. Inside job, the detective concluded. ... The detective didn't have to look far for a solution: The family had been in hysterics since finding Stephanie early that morning - everyone, that is, but her brother, 14-year-old Michael Crowe. He sat, expressionless, the detective would later recall, calmly playing a handheld video game. "Inappropriate grieving," the police later called it. His dark hair, parted in the middle, the detective noted, looked a lot like the strands he had spotted in Stephanie's cold fingers.

The detective and his partners at the Escondido Police Department knew what had to be done - hard, unpleasant but essential. By the time they completed their many hours of interrogation of Michael Crowe, along with two friends thought to be accomplices, the police had used lies, false promises, isolation from parents and attorneys, even threats of adult prison and predatory older inmates to persuade the teenager to drop his protestations of innocence. The detectives told a sobbing, gasping, pleading Michael that they had blood and lie-detector evidence proving beyond any doubt that he was the killer - lies, but convincing to the 14-year-old. Then they suggested he might have a split personality: a good Michael who would never hurt a fly, and a bad Michael who had locked away the memory of poor Stephanie's murder, enabling him to sit there and believe himself innocent. If he would only just admit it, detectives promised, they could help him.

In the end, the police got what they needed to bring the boys to justice: confessions from Michael and a friend, and enough incriminating statements from the third boy to file murder charges against them all. Sure, the interrogations were rough, the videotapes painful to watch, but such was the difficult path to truth. And so another dreadful case of violent, antisocial teens in the era of Columbine was laid to rest. Except there was one hitch: The insistent voice of a slim, intense psychology professor from the University of California, Irvine, kept saying, No, you've got the wrong guys.

Richard Leo, who has spent most of his career studying the dynamics of police interrogations - both the good and the bad - viewed more than 40 hours of videotape of Crowe, his friends and the Escondido Police. When he was through with his analysis, he declared the police work in the Crowe case a textbook example of how not to question suspects, finding that it amounted to a form of "psychological torture" so coercive that the boys would have said almost anything to make it stop. If you wanted a lab experiment designed to prove how to bully suspects into falsely confessing to crimes, Leo concluded in a case that began with Stephanie's death in 1998 and continues to this day, you couldn't do any better than what took place in that Escondido police interview room. The boys were innocent, Leo asserted, confessions be damned. And he was right. ..more.. EDWARD HUMES | The Orange County Register

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