Actual Innocence Research

Interrogations, confessions and the vulnerability of youth

By Andrea Arndorfer and Lindsay C. Malloy

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According to the most recent report from the National Registry of Exonerations, 14 percent of known exonerations since 1989 have involved a false confession. The intense experience that is a criminal interrogation can influence even the most strong-minded suspect to admit guilt. Yet certain suspects may be more susceptible to modern interrogation tactics than others, thus increasing the likelihood of falsely confessing. Our authors this month discuss one such group: youths. Numerous wrongful conviction cases, such as the Central Park Jogger case, have involved the interrogation of juveniles who falsely confessed. Given the number of juveniles entangled in the criminal justice system, and the current attention on wrongful convictions, it is imperative that researchers continue to study interrogations of and confessions obtained from youthful suspects, as this month’s column encourages.

Our guest authors this month are Andrea Arndorfer and Dr. Lindsay Malloy. Andrea received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice Studies from Iowa State University and is currently a doctoral student at Florida International University (FIU) in the Department of Psychology. Her main research interests are in eyewitness memory, interrogation procedures, and the factors influencing the elicitation of confessions. Specifically, she is interested in the processes underlying eyewitness memory and identifications, lineup administration procedures and their influence on eyewitness accuracy and confidence, and the psychological aspects of police interrogations and confession decisions. Lindsay, an assistant professor at FIU, holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of CA, Irvine and held a postdoctoral position at the University of Cambridge.  She was named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science (2011) and received an award for early career contributions to the field of investigative interviewing.

For several decades, researchers and practitioners have been concerned with how youth are interviewed as witnesses to and victims of crime.   More recently, attention has shifted to the manner in which youth are interrogated as suspects of crime (Owen-Kostelnik, Reppucci, & Meyer, 2006).  Increased interest in this area is appropriate given that youth may be particularly likely to be arrested and to find themselves in an interrogation room (Moffitt, 1993). In recent years, youth has emerged as a dispositional risk factor for false confession (Kassin et al., 2010; Redlich, 2007). False confession cases involving adolescent defendants, like that of 15-year-old Anthony Caravella, reveal the vulnerabilities of youth in the interrogation room and the need for empirical research to delineate what methods are likely to protect innocent youth from confessing falsely but still elicit detailed information from guilty youth.

First, we will provide an overview of Anthony Caravella’s case. Second, we will present a brief summary of extant research relevant to the case.  Finally, we will outline suggestions for future research.

Case overview1

In November of 1983, a 58-year-old woman was raped and stabbed to death in Miramar, Florida after she was seen leaving a bar with 17-year-old Anthony Martinez. Two months later, 15-year-old Anthony Caravella failed to appear in juvenile court on an unrelated charge and was subsequently arrested. While he was in custody, police questioned him about the November rape and murder, for which, at the time, he was not a suspect. Caravella, who had an IQ of 67 and was thus intellectually impaired, eventually gave four recorded statements to the police implicating himself in the murder. None of the four statements was consistent with each other, and the statements conflicted with the physical evidence from the crime scene. For example, Caravella told the police that he had hit the victim over the head with a Pepsi bottle when the police knew that the victim had been raped, hit over the head with a chair, strangled with a wire, and repeatedly stabbed. Also, Caravella provided incorrect information on the cause and time of death and, on multiple occasions, gave inaccurate descriptions of the murder weapons even after detectives repeatedly showed him photos of the weapons retrieved from the crime scene.

Despite the fact that no physical evidence linked Caravella to the crime, the jury appeared to rely largely on his statements to the police to convict him of first degree murder.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

Seventeen years passed before Caravella’s attorneys convinced Broward County officials to test physical evidence retrieved from the crime scene (e.g., hair found on the victim, a t-shirt, a steak knife, and a vaginal swab). Multiple experts eliminated Caravella as the source of the DNA found in the victim’s body. Anthony Caravella was released from prison 26 years after his wrongful conviction.

Key factors contributing to Caravella’s wrongful conviction include (1) multiple false confessions to the police and (2) alleged police misconduct.   According to Caravella’s attorneys, the police ignored or hid evidence that contradicted their beliefs that Caravella was the prime suspect.  They interrogated Caravella extensively - at least four times over several days – and recorded only parts of these interrogations. Furthermore, police allegedly supplied the defendant with key information about the crime, showed him pictures of crime scene evidence and the weapons used, indicated that there would be no severe consequences for him if he confessed, and implied that confessing could get a friend out of trouble. Finally, Caravella’s attorneys alleged that police took advantage of his young age and low IQ to secure a confession. That is, police had become well acquainted with Caravella due to his criminal history and, through their previous interactions with him, had learned that he would admit to crimes that he did not commit. Some claimed that police had used Caravella in the past to close unsolved burglaries.

Research concerning the vulnerability of young suspects

Proven DNA exoneration cases, self-report studies, experimental paradigms, and hypothetical vignettes all point to the same conclusion: Compared to adults, youth are particularly vulnerable to providing false confessions (e.g., Drizin & Leo, 204; Kassin et al., 2010).   Characteristics associated with typical adolescent development may be related to this enhanced risk, including, for example, heightened suggestibility, susceptibility to social influence, and immaturity of judgment. Furthermore, adolescents tend to weigh immediate rewards more heavily than the potential long- term negative consequences of their actions (see Steinberg, 2009, for a review). When combined with police use of psychologically manipulative and high pressure interrogation techniques, these characteristics may lead some youth to make false confessions.

Caravella’s case provides several examples of how these general developmental characteristics may manifest in the context of a stressful police interrogation.  Because only his final oral confession statement was recorded, it is impossible to know precisely what transpired during his multiple interrogation sessions.  However, several alleged components are worth mentioning in relation to the developmental literature.  First, Caravella believed, erroneously, that there would be no severe consequences if he confessed. Consequently, he may have weighed the immediate benefits of confessing (e.g., getting to leave the stressful context) highly while discounting or failing to understand the long-range implications of confessing (e.g., a greater certainty of conviction to a serious crime). Second, Caravella was interrogated multiple times over the course of several days. He was shown photographs of the crime scene and weapons and became highly familiar with the details of the crime.  For a confession to have diagnostic value, it is critical that the details come directly from the suspect and are not tainted by other evidence or sources (e.g., the police; Kassin, 2002).   If Caravella mentioned items present in the photographs, were those details from his own memory of committing the crime or merely memories of the photos themselves?  Although suggestibility is primarily a concern among very young children, adolescents have been found to be more suggestible and compliant than adults (e.g., Grisso et al., 2003; Richardson, Gudjonsson,
& Kelly, 1995).

Another crucial aspect of Caravella’s confession is that he intended to get a friend out of trouble by confessing.  More so than adults, adolescents tend to be highly influenced by their peers (e.g., Gardner & Steinberg, 2005).  They place great importance on peer relationships, and the desire to protect a peer in the interrogation room may be especially powerful for young suspects.  Self- reported juvenile false confessors often mention protecting someone else as motivation for the false confession (Malloy, Shulman, & Cauffman, 2013; Viljoen, Klaver, & Roesch, 2005).

The characteristics discussed thus far illustrate typical adolescent development. However, justice- system involved youth are often characterized by additional dispositional risk factors. Specifically, youth involved in the juvenile justice system, like Caravella, are disproportionately likely to be intellectually impaired (e.g., Quinn, Rutherford, Leone, Osher, & Poirier, 2005).   Intellectual impairments are associated with enhanced risk for false confession, perhaps due to the heightened suggestibility and strong desire to appease authority figures common among individuals with intellectual impairments (Kassin et al., 2010).  Hence, in the interrogation context, youth with intellectual impairments may accept the blame for crimes they did not commit to please the police or because they experience memory errors as a result of highly suggestive questions or techniques. Also, although we found no evidence that Caravella had been diagnosed with a mental illness, mental health issues are over-represented among populations of juvenile offenders (Redlich, 2007). Both intellectual impairments and mental illness are associated with increased risk for false confession (e.g., Kassin et al., 2010; Redlich, 2007). Thus, if typically developing adolescents sharecharacteristics that enhance their risk in the interrogation room, then the adolescents most likely to come into contact with police as suspects are liable to be even more vulnerable.

Research ideas

Of note in Caravella’s case is the presence of multiple dispositional risk factors (i.e., youth, intellectual impairment).  Most experimental research on false confessions has been conducted with typically developing individuals, usually adults.  However, Redlich (2007) points out that juvenile suspects may be in “double jeopardy” in the interrogation room – vulnerable due to both their young age and poor mental health.  A trio of dispositional risk factors is not unlikely given that low IQ and mental illness are over-represented among justice-system involved youth. Experimental research examining the interaction of these factors is paramount.  To enhance generalizability, it is imperative to conduct laboratory research with the populations of greatest interest to researchers and practitioners.

Experts agree that reforms are needed when it comes to interrogation policies concerning vulnerable suspects, including youth (Kassin et al., 2010).  Thus, alternative interrogation procedures should be tested.  One procedure involves an adaptation of the NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol, which was originally designed for interviewing young victims and witnesses. Hershkowitz, Horowitz, Lamb, Orbach, and Sternberg (2004) tested the effectiveness of this modified NICHD Protocol when questioning 9- to 14-year-old alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse.  Open-ended prompts (e.g., “Tell me what happened.”) were effective in eliciting information from young suspects who fully or partially admitted their involvement. Certainly, more research is needed (e.g., on different age groups and crime types).  However, this study demonstrates the potential utility of using an information-gathering, rather than confrontational, approach with youth.

Finally, future research should examine the potential factors at play external to the interrogation room.  For example, self-reported false confessors often claim to have made the confession to protect another individual (Malloy et al., 2013; Viljoen et al., 2005).  Our ongoing experimental research reveals age differences in the tendency of individuals to take responsibility to protect someone else for a laboratory wrongdoing (i.e., cheating). Preliminary analyses indicate that with age, innocent participants are less likely to sign the confession statement to protect the guilty confederate (Pimentel, Arndorfer, & Malloy, 2013).  However, this study raises more questions than it answers.   For example, how does the closeness or quality of the relationship between two individuals play into whether one takes responsibility for the other by falsely confessing? What if a group (e.g., a sports team) is accused of wrongdoing as opposed to an individual?  How would being asked to “take the fall” for an individual with real or perceived authority influence confession decisions (e.g., an adult asking an adolescent)?


Anthony Caravella’s case highlights what the research findings demonstrate: Youth is a period of vulnerability when it comes to false confessions.  However, experimental and field research is needed to examine the specific factors and characteristics that contribute to this enhanced risk and the interrogation methods most effective for this high-risk group.  In Caravella’s case, as in many, there were multiple dispositional (e.g., youth, intellectual impairment) and situational (e.g., implications of leniency, desire to protect a friend, exposure to repeated suggestive interrogations) risk factors present.

1 Information about the case was gathered from the Innocence Project , the Innocence Project of Florida and the Sun Sentinel.


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