For TV’s true-crime fans, the sight of police officers deceiving individuals to get confessions is common. Unfortunately, this practice has much more sinister applications in real life.
What these shows often don’t depict is that, in Utah and across the country, law enforcement officers are lying to unsuspecting children and teenagers to garner false convictions. In fact, in all but two states, police officers are entirely free to use deceptive tactics on these vulnerable populations.
This is exactly what happened to Huwe Burton. At only 16 years old, Huwe was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the murder of his mother. Unfortunately, the police completely bungled their investigation and sent an innocent teenager to prison.
It took Huwe spending 19 long years in jail for him to finally be exonerated. Huwe’s exoneration resulted from it coming to light that he made a false confession only after hours of being threatened and lied to by police officers.
The exoneration of this young man marked the first time someone was exonerated on the scientific analysis of interrogation.
Pushing children to make bogus confessions is not just occurring in isolated cases but is becoming increasingly prominent with, according to the Innocence Project, police deception contributing to “30% of all wrongful convictions overturned by DNA.”
We are taught that the criminal justice system will keep us safe. However, stories like Huwe’s — and countless others — shed light on how this system can rob bright, young individuals of their future.
It’s not hard to see how children can easily be manipulated by officers. First, children are innately trusting of adults. They’re especially trusting of those they have been told are there to protect them. Additionally, children are routinely told that lying is wrong.
These teachings culminate in children having the belief that a police officer would never lie to them or hurt them. After all, if these children know lying is wrong, shouldn’t these powerful adults know, too?
Children’s beliefs, combined with the fact that during an interrogation they might be deprived of a lawyer or another better-equipped adult, make this population very susceptible to being coerced into giving police inaccurate information. Such information could ultimately lead to their conviction.
The harm of allowing police officers to deceive children cannot be overstated. Children and teenagers that are falsely convicted face living out their most transformative years in prison away from their family, friends, and school. This has lasting impacts as many of these individuals will face long-term mental and emotional trauma, even if they are eventually exonerated.
If you have a hard time understanding how life-ruining this policy is, imagine if it happened to you or your children. Imagine if you were imprisoned for multiple years for a crime you didn’t commit. Imagine how frustrated and helpless you would feel to see your connections wither away and opportunities pass you by for something you did not do.
It is a common retort to argue that deception is a necessary tool for police officers. Those taking this position see life-ruining false convictions as being the price to pay to gather a few accurate convictions. Besides being ethically inappropriate, this argument undermines the principles the American government and justice system were founded on: individual rights and freedom.
Police officers should never be allowed to lie to children and teenagers. These individuals are tasked with bettering their communities and preserving justice. It is obvious that deceiving unsuspecting individuals does not serve to achieve either of those goals.
The practice of deceiving young people only results in police hearing what they want to hear. It does not result in accurately solving crimes.
Last year, Illinois recently banned their police from lying to juveniles, becoming the first state in the country to do so, followed closely by Oregon. With this precedent, the time is now for Utah to follow suit.
Libertas is working to end this harmful practice within Utah. It is important that within Utah our youth are not being terrorized by those meant to protect them. This population should be nurtured not face the possibility of life-wrecking jail sentences for crimes they did not commit.