Legal clinics create joint project, focus on juveniles

Caroline Dzeba

Two of the Northwestern School of Law’s legal clinics, the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Children and Family Justice Center, launched a joint project this month to protect juveniles wrongfully convicted of crimes.

The Center on the Wrongful Convictions of Youth celebrated its launch with a symposium and panel discussion at the Law School’s Thorne Auditorium on Oct. 8.

The new center investigates the wrongful convictions of children and adolescents in criminal courts, mainly due to false confessions obtained through controversial methods of police questioning. The center plans to litigate on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, who in many cases have already spent substantial time in prison. In addition to working with these cases, the center aims to affect policy reform in Illinois and across the nation to change the process of questioning of juveniles in relation to criminal cases.

Josh Tepfer, the center’s director, said this initiative is the first in the nation to address the specific problem of wrongful convictions of youth.

“Juveniles are uniquely susceptible to police-induced false confessions,” he said. “Children are taught from a very young age to trust police, so their faulty assumption is that things will work out if they tell police what they want to hear. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true.”

Tepfer said under Illinois law, police and prosecutors can question juvenile suspects and witnesses using scare tactics such as intimidation and lying about evidence. Interrogations of juveniles do not have to be videotaped or electronically recorded, and often a parent or guardian is not allowed to accompany the child into the questioning room.

Tepfer said he knew of cases where police and investigators lied to children about nonexistent forensic or videotaped evidence in efforts to extract a confession.

“Police are instructed not to use leading questions with children when they are questioned as possible victims,” he said. “However, when they are suspected (of a crime), all those cautions tend to go out the window, and these suspects are treated like adults.”

Steven Drizin, the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Bernadine Dohrn, the director of the Children and Family Justice Center, worked in tandem to form a new organization that combined the interests of the two legal clinics.

Drizin became involved in the field nearly 15 years ago, when he worked on the case of an 11-year-old boy who had falsely confessed to a crime under pressure from investigators.”I had to begin to understand how it is that someone can confess to a crime he didn’t commit,” Drizin said.

Further research led Drizin to find that many wrongful convictions were in fact convicted as youths, he said. This realization inspired him to investigate whether there was a need for an organization dedicated to these types of convictions, he said.

Dohrn said collaboration had always been a topic of discussion between the two centers.”What we’re going to find now, with more cases, and more tools for lawyers, judges and probation officers, is that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Dohrn also echoed Drizin’s desire for policy reform in the questioning of children. “Our goals are to change practices and to account for the fact that children are different than adults,” she said.

The Oct. 8 symposium launch featured a panel of speakers, including experts in the fields of child psychology and law, and several people who had been falsely convicted as juveniles and exonerated as adults. The new center is sponsored by a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation.

“What we hope to do is to shine a spotlight on the unique vulnerabilities that the youthful suspects have in the criminal justice system,” Drizin said.

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