innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

False Confessions

Part 9 of series
Juvenile Confessions
Fear and Loathing Without Representation Leads To Admissions They Now Contest

By Bill Moushey, Elizabeth Perry and Cynthia Levy
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University

In 1976, Billy Pirozzi, 17, became so fearful without his parents present during police interrogations over the murder of an elderly Lawrenceville man, he confessed, though he changed his story four times, falsely implicated a friend in the murder and now says none of it is true.

That friend, 17-year-old Jeffrey Cristina, also repeatedly lied, but said he wasn’t the killer, maintaining his innocence all the way to his conviction as an adult and life in prison.

After 19 hours of interrogation without a lawyer, Paul Reggettz confessed then reenacted the gruesome 1979 murders of his wife and two children at his ramshackle West Virginia house before recanting the next day, saying he confessed only after police held a gun to his head.

However, ten months later 17-year-old convict John Moss, also interrogated without a parent or attorney, accused police of beating a confession out of him in the same homicides, causing Mr. Reggettz to walk free and him to be sent away for life.

In Mr. Cristina and Mr. Moss’ cases police admit the juveniles confessed without parents or attorneys, but deny using physical or mental coercion. After three decades, three trials and dozens of appeals there is no clear record of what happened – or if justice was served -- because interrogations were not taped from beginning to end.


Experts Question Juvenile Interrogations

Nationwide, a series of scientific reports and other analyses conducted since Mr. Cristina and Mr. Moss were incarcerated increasingly suggest children are prone to confess falsely under pressure, especially if they are questioned without parents or attorneys.

Steven A. Drizin, false confession expert and legal director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions said “juveniles tend to be more suggestible than adults,” explaining they have trouble understanding consequences and just want interrogations to end.

A 2003 University of Michigan study on exonerations in the United States shows 44% of juveniles later exonerated falsely confessed compared to 13% of adults.

While many Pennsylvania police agencies have internal policies to gain parental consent for interrogations, only Alaska, Minnesota and Wisconsin require juvenile interrogations to be recorded.

Attorney Eileen Hirsch, who litigated a Wisconsin case which led to the juvenile interrogation law, said when done improperly, interrogations can’t “give a judge or jury necessary means to make the right decision.

“It is the best tool ever shoved down our throats—it’s made cases I wouldn’t have made any other way.” said Commander Neil Nelson, a 30 year veteran of the St. Paul Minnesota Police that now records all interrogations. The downside, he said, is the cost in recording equipment and tape transcription.

In Pennsylvania, a state with no juvenile interrogation law, a troubling study by Human Rights Watch found it leads the nation with 342 juveniles sentenced to life in prison.

This has provoked Pennsylvania Sen.Vincent Fumo (D-Phila) to advocate banning life sentences for juveniles and re-examining interrogation techniques for children.

“I wouldn’t take a confession unless their parents were there and a lawyer was present,” said Sen. Fumo.

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