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The Role of Allied Adults in Juvenile Interrogations: How do Potential Jurors Evaluate Parents and Attorneys?

Fri, March 22, 7:45 to 9:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

In 2005, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, who had a below average IQ, was removed from his high school class to be questioned about a murder. This questioning, which occurred in the absence of any allied adult for the teenage suspect (e.g., parent, attorney), turned into a psychologically coercive interrogation (Crane, Nirider & Drizin, 2016). Dassey’s conviction was later overturned with the District court judge commenting on the failure of the court of appeals to appropriately consider the “totality of the circumstances” when evaluating the voluntariness of Dassey’s confession, noting, “omitted from its discussion is any consideration of how the absence of a parent or allied adult affected the voluntariness of Dassey’s confession.” The court’s decision repeatedly mentioned the absence of a supportive adult (Dassey v. Dittman, 2016). Due to subsequent court decisions, Dassey remains incarcerated. But would his outcome have been different if his mother had been present during his interrogation? How would jurors have interpreted his parent’s or other “allied adult’s” presence in the interrogation room?
“Allied adults,” specifically parents, have been suggested as safeguards intended to compensate for juveniles’ inadequate comprehension of their Miranda rights, interrogative vulnerability, and well-established increased risk for making false confessions to crimes, compared to adults (Cleary, 2017). However, research has not examined how jurors perceive juvenile confession evidence when it is elicited in the presence of an allied adult (i.e., interested third party). The current study tackles this knowledge gap by addressing the potential trial-level repercussions of this recommended safeguard. Specifically, we examined the effects of confession evidence (coerced, voluntary, no confession) and interested third-party presence (no third-party, parent, defense attorney) on verdict and guilt ratings, among other secondary variables (e.g., perceptions of the juvenile’s legal sophistication).

Participants (N = 350) were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and completed the study online. Participants were randomly assigned to read and answer questions about one of nine case summaries describing the interrogation of a 15-year-old who was accused of murder (Najdowski & Bottoms, 2012). The study conformed to a 3 (confession type: coerced, voluntary, no confession) X 3 (allied adult presence: defense attorney, parent, no third-party) design.

Results and Discussion
Guilt ratings were highest for voluntary confessions, but not different between coerced confessions and no confession (see Figure 1 and Table 1). However, attorney presence, compared to no third-party, produced more guilty verdicts when coerced or voluntary confessions were presented, but parent presence produced more guilty verdicts only for voluntary confessions. These results counter past findings, where guilt ratings were significantly lower for coerced and no confession conditions than a voluntary confession condition (Najdowski & Bottoms, 2012). This suggests that, when a third-party is present, jurors evaluate juvenile confession evidence differently, no longer engaging in the discounting principle (Kelley, 1973) and instead presumably defaulting to the fundamental attribution error (Ross, 1977). Additional analyses will focus on other outcome variables (e.g., perceptions of the defendant) and our follow-up study, currently underway, examining the advice provided by the allied adult rather than their mere presence.


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