The American media has a strong tendency to become obsessed with violent crimes committed against children. Just look at San Diego for proof. The two highest-profile local murder cases in recent years have been the David Westerfield and Richard Tuite trials. (A third high-profile case was the Kristen Rossum case. The media focused on that one for a different reason: the defendant was super-sexy.)
The press covers these cases blow by blow, detailing just about every comment made by every witness who takes the stand. Meanwhile, everyday murders of adults are relegated to small blurbs on a newspaper's Page 3 and ignored entirely by TV newsrooms.
CityBeat has commented in the past on the over-saturation of media coverage of cases such as Westerfield and Scott Peterson. In the case of the Richard Tuite, however, there's a compelling reason for scrutiny, and it has nothing to do with the age of the victim. True, that 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe's life was stolen is an awful thing, and we understand the media's attention to the inherent emotion of it. But it's the age of the original suspect that's particularly interesting to us.
Michael Crowe, Stephanie's brother, was 14 when he was brought in by Escondido Police for questioning. Detectives focused on the boy when, immediately following the murder, he behaved in a way they considered odd for a brother who just lost a little sister in such a violent way. During harsh questioning, police lied to Crowe, telling him they'd found his hair in his sister's hands and her blood in his room, when they had no such evidence. Under persistent, deceitful badgering and threats of a long time behind bars, Crowe finally confessed to a crime that true evidence shows he very likely didn't commit. A videotape of the interrogation shows that at one point, Crowe announced to officers that he was about to tell a lie, just to stop the questioning, before confessing to the crime. Later, Crowe seemed to actually start believing he had done the deed, saying he must have purged the horrible memory of it. A judge ruled that Crowe's confession was coerced, and prosecutors believe mentally ill drifter Tuite is the true murderer.
Crowe, now 20 years old, was forced to relive the interrogation via videotape this past week as he endured a new line of severe questioning about his possible involvement in his sister's murder. Reporters who have been covering the trial have commented on the extreme emotional nature of Crowe's reaction to the taped interview.
False confessions are relatively rare, but they do happen-and when they happen, a disproportionate number of them involve juvenile suspects. Experts point out, and common sense would corroborate, that children are highly susceptible to such police tactics. Children tend to tell authority figures what they want to hear, whether it's to please adults or, in Crowe's case, put a stop to a traumatic interrogation. Kids are far more likely to believe it when the police tell them they have evidence when they don't. Time and again, it's been shown that the power of suggestion compels children to tell questioners that an adult has molested them, for example.
"Kids don't set out to lie," University of Massachusetts psychologist Thomas Grisso once told The Nation magazine. "They merely try to cooperate."
We must make it more difficult for police detectives to use tactics normally employed for adult suspects on children. While children can waive their Miranda right to have an attorney present, they are far less likely to understand the consequences of such a waiver. Detectives should not be allowed to question a juvenile without a lawyer, or at least some adult advocate, present.It's fortunate for Crowe that his interrogation was taped-it certainly helped show that his false confession was coerced. But it should never have gotten that far. He was let off the hook eventually-notwithstanding this week's examination of him by Tuite's lawyer-but who knows what psychological damage was done.