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NorCal Experts Say Juveniles More Likely To Falsely Confess To Crimes

SACRAMENTO (KPIX 5) – A video obtained by KPIX 5 shows a Northern California teenager who was interrogated by authorities admitting to a crime he didn't commit. Experts said teen suspects are more likely to give false confessions.

"I wasn't there," insisted 15-year-old Jarvell Smart. He told Sacramento police he had nothing to do with a gang related shooting.

But the detectives were persistent: "That's not really going to work, said Detective Garcia, "and it's not going to be to your benefit to lie about what happened out there…"

Jarvell was inside a small interrogation room, with two detectives firing questions. They told him he was going to jail, two witnesses had picked him out of a photo lineup, and he needed to help himself by telling the truth.

"I'm telling the truth in my heart, I swear to you.." said Jarvell, clearly getting more frustrated.

The interrogation continued for an hour, then the officers briefly left the room. Jarvell can be seen in the surveillance video sobbing.

He was heard crying to himself, "I didn't do nothing man…I wish you might just believe me, man…Please lord, just believe me…"

Maitreya Badami of the Northern California Innocence Project said teens like Jarvell are easy to break.

"He doesnt give the facts the way the police believe they are, so they continue to pressure him and to require him to keep giving statements until he gives a statement that aligns with what they think is what really happened," Badami told KPIX 5.

"You're making a mistake by sticking with a bogus story," scolded Detective Garcia.

After four hours, Jarvell confesses. "Man, all right…it went down like this…I'll tell you the truth…"

The teenager says he was drunk, doesn't remember much. Jarvell was convicted of being an accomplice in the shooting. The Innocence Project said his confession was coerced.

Juvenile counselors said kids are impulsive and will confess to a crime even when they didn't commit it because they've been promised something. In many cases, they are promised that they can just go home if they confess.

The Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University tracked 125 proven cases of false confessions and discovered 33 percent involved children, and most of them confessed to murder.

University of San Francisco law professor Richard Leo was part of the research team. He told KPIX 5 juveniles are immature and gullible.

"Especially when you put them into an interrogation that is aggressive, manipulative, perhaps psychologically coercive and goes on for a number of hours. They are the easiest, or among the easiest of the groups to inadvertently lead to a false or unreliable confession," Leo said.

Jeffrey Deskovic of New York confessed to the rape and murder of a classmate when he was 16. After a seven-hour interrogation, he admitted to a crime he didn't commit.

"I felt like my life was over. I felt extremely depressed. I felt hopeless and helpless. And at times, I thought of suicide," Deskovic recalled.

Deskovic spent half of his life in prison. The Innocence Project helped free him in 2006. Today, he works to raise public awareness about false confessions and pushes for reforms.

Last month, California passed a law requiring videotapes of all interrogations of juvenile homicide suspects.

Currently, 43 police agencies statewide voluntarily videotape all interrogations -- 13 of them in the Bay Area. Detectives said it is useful to study body language and helps with questioning.

But the California State Sheriff's Association said requiring taped interrogations could hurt a case.

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said his deputies sometimes get confessions at the scene of the crime, when no camera is rolling. Timing, he believes, is key to the investigation.

"Very critical," Ahern said, "either you're going to get accurate rendition of what actually took place…or they're going to start fabricating their lies."

Jarvell Smart is now 24, and has spent nearly ten years in prison. Recently, the prosecutor's star witness in the case recanted his story that Smart was at the scene of the shooting. That witness was also 15 at the time of the crime, and is now in prison on an unrelated charge. The witness admitted he lied during his interrogation.

Jarvell is hoping that development, and his taped confession, could finally free him.

His appeal is currently before the federal district court in Sacramento.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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