Across the country, police have begun using special care when questioning youth, in recognition of young people's susceptibility to making involuntary and false confessions. But in Tennessee, police have done the opposite. In at least four recent cases, Tennessee officers have threatened teenagers with prison rape, the death penalty, or both during recorded questioning sessions.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world's oldest and largest nonprofit membership organization of police executives, trains police to question youth "with great caution, (pdf)" because it recognizes that young people are uniquely vulnerable to making involuntary and false confessions. Similarly, John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., which markets its interrogation training program as "the most widely used approach to question subjects in the world," teaches that threatening suspects with "inevitable consequences has no place in a properly conducted interrogation."
And then there is Tennessee law enforcement. In at least four recent cases, Tennessee police officers have threatened teenagers during interrogations that unless they confess, the consequences will include prison rape, the death penalty, or both. In all of these cases, those threats were coupled with implicit or explicit promises that the teens would receive more lenient treatment if they did confess.
In one such audio-recorded interrogation, a police interrogator can be heard yelling at seventeen-year-old Codey Miller, repeatedly accusing him of lying and ultimately threatening him with the death penalty. Eventually, Codey confessed to involvement in his own mother's murder. Later, Johnson County Court Judge Robert Cupp called the recording "mindboggling" and suppressed Codey's confession – even though the charges were serious – because "no human being in the world [could] know what Codey Miller's involvement is." The death threat's effect on Codey, explained Judge Cupp, was obvious: the teenager had denied involvement dozens of times, but he finally said he was guilty just minutes after the threat.
Sixteen-year-old Chattanoogan Brendan Barnes experienced the same death threat during his interrogation. This time, the vast majority of the interrogation went unrecorded – until the police secured Brendan's "cooperation," at which point they turned on the recorder. The one-minute clip above sheds a lot of light about what happened during the off tape recording. As the tape was finally rolling, police asked Brendan to explain why he had initially denied committing the offense and what changed his mind. Brendan's response: "You told me [about] the death penalty." Rather than deny the claim, the officer explained that yes, the death penalty was one of the options. At the same time, the officer noted that he knew of others who cooperated and received probation, and he told Brendan that cooperation would be to his "own benefit."
This brings us to Knox County, where two videotaped interrogations involving Investigator Chas Terry might be the most coercive of the bunch. During one moment of the interrogation, Investigator Terry tells nineteen-year-old Carlos Campbell what his life will be like in prison if he doesn't admit his involvement in a shooting:
And brother, they gonna rape you. They gonna f---in' rape you. You are not a big man. You cannot fend them off. They will f---in rape you ... daily. Your hands ain't gonna do you no good when you got 10, my size, comin at you. They don't come individually. They cliqued up. You new, you fresh.
The entire interrogation is layered with similar threats of prison rape, the death penalty, and other harsh penalties, all coupled with promises of leniency if Campbell were to come clean.
And in another case involving sixteen-year-old C.R., Investigator Terry was at it again, telling the young suspect:
So, you have two ways you can deal with this. You can deal with this in juvenile court where they give you a slap on the f---ing wrist and send you on your way. Or I'll hold charges out until you're 17 and I'm not just going to charge you with the robbery, I'm going to charge you with kidnapping as well.
You resolve this shit as a teenager so when you're a man you ain't locked up in real jail getting your ass beat and getting f---ing raped. So, you can deal with this bull---t in juvenile court, where they're gonna smack your f---ing hand, or I will hold out 'til you're 17, and tag kidnapping on to it.
This disturbing pattern in police interrogation tactics is a real problem. As discussed above, law enforcement organizations – not to mention the public and the courts – agree that the use of such heavy-handed interrogation tactics on young people generates an unacceptable risk of producing false and involuntary confessions. These tactics not only put innocent youth at risk, but they also can prevent real perpetrators from being caught and contribute to public distrust of law enforcement.
Additionally, threatening anyone under eighteen with the death penalty is simply false. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice of executing those who committed crimes when they were under 18. This means that the officers were lying when they told Codey and Brendan that they faced the death penalty unless they confessed. As for threats of prison rape, military courts have condemned this practice as coercive even on terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay (pdf). Indeed, the high court of the State of Kentucky – Tennessee's neighbor to the north – just recently held in Dye v. Commonwealth (pdf) that threats of the death penalty and prison rape were "objectively coercive."
Despite all this, some Tennessee courts are unaffected, as exemplified by this Court order (pdf) allowing Carlos Campbell's confession to be used against him in court. There, the Court determined that these tactics "did not have a coercive effect on the defendant." In an era where there is growing understanding from all quarters concerning the unique vulnerability of teenagers and children in the interrogation room, this conclusion is intolerable.
These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg in Tennessee. Unlike seventeen other states, Tennessee law does not mandate that custodial interrogations be recorded. The law enforcement officers and agencies involved in these four cases chose to turn on their tape recorders. Many other officers, however, choose to leave the recorder off – so it's unknowable how many other cases exist in which similar threats and promises were used to procure confessions, true or false, from teenagers.
In partnership with Professor Terry Maroney at Vanderbilt University and others, the CWCY is engaged in a campaign to eliminate the use of these interrogation tactics in Tennessee. We have filed amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," briefs in three of the cases described above. Some of those briefs are linked below. We have also begun conducting statewide trainings of defense attorneys concerning how to recognize and challenge these tactics in court. We are reaching out to Tennessee law enforcement officials, offering to train them on best practices in questioning youth. And we are urging the State to mandate electronic recording of all custodial interrogations.
We urge you to contact us and get involved in this campaign!