To date, DNA evidence has exonerated hundreds of people of crimes they did not commit. Many of these innocent men and women served decades in prison before they were vindicated. Many more like them await exoneration.
Through the work of the Bluhm Legal Clinic and other leaders, these ever-multiplying instances of wrongful conviction have elicited much attention from the public and the national media. Before 2008, however, no attention had been focused on those people who may be most likely to be wrongfully convicted: children and adolescents. The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) – a joint project of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Children and Family Justice Center – was created to address the unique problems faced by wrongfully accused youth.
Guided by a staff with special expertise in juvenile interrogations, the CWCY is spearheading national efforts to exonerate wrongfully convicted youth and drive criminal justice reforms that will prevent children from making unreliable and coerced statements during police interrogations. "The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that children and teenagers are different from adults. They're less able to weigh risks and long-term consequences, more easily pressured by authority figures, and more naïve about the way the world works," says CWCY Project Co-Director Laura Nirider. Project Co-Director Joshua Tepfer adds, "Unfortunately, law enforcement officials don’t always consider these differences when investigating and questioning children. As a result, much of the evidence used to charge and convict children can be unreliable."
The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth investigates and litigates the credible innocence claims of wrongfully convicted youth.
The CWCY has helped exonerate nine wrongfully convicted people in twin cases known as the Dixmoor Five and Englewood Four, both of which involved multiple false confessions from teens.
CWCY staff and students also contributed to the 2011 release of three Arkansas men in the internationally-known case of the West Memphis Three.
The CWCY plays an active role as amicus curiae, filing briefs around the country – including before the United States Supreme Court – that seek to educate judges about juvenile interrogations.
Policy Reform Work
In the interrogation room, officers often question children using pressure-filled tactics designed for adults. In most jurisdictions, police are trained to ask children to waive their Miranda rights without ensuring the children understand the rights or their significance; to question children for hours without notifying their parents or an attorney; to interrogate them using guilt-presumptive, leading questions; to falsely tell child suspects that there is evidence against them; and to falsely imply that a confession will result in leniency or even freedom. Because these tactics are used, a recent CWCY study found that youth are twice as likely as adults to falsely confess to crimes they never committed. Learn more about these heart-wrenching juvenile wrongful conviction cases.
The CWCY also advocates for policy reforms that will decrease the likelihood that any child’s life will be disrupted by a wrongful conviction. Says Tepfer, "We regularly travel nationwide to train law enforcement officials and defense attorneys concerning juvenile interrogation best practices. People don’t always realize it, but we work closely in partnership with law enforcement. In fact, through such collaboration, we developed the only known comprehensive juvenile interrogation manual in the country." The Center has built a broad network of like-minded advocates committed to pushing juvenile interrogation reform to the forefront of legislative agendas, testified at legislative hearings, and led informational campaigns to educate policymakers and the public.
Through a combination of litigation and policy strategies, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth strives to improve the ways in which children are questioned by police – and remains committed to helping wrongfully convicted children across the country.