Lawyers, supporters push bill to protect children under arrest

In 1989, the “Central Park Five,” a group of black and Hispanic teenagers from Harlem, were wrongly convicted of the rape and caning of a white woman after they made false confessions to police without a lawyer present.

Yusef Salaam, one of the five who was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly seven years, and other criminal justice activists are now pushing for a law in Albany that would give minors more protection if they are questioned by police – citing at least 19 false ones Confessions of underage suspects since 1991.

“We weren’t sophisticated enough to really understand what was going on,” Salaam, who was 15 when he underwent a grueling interrogation without a lawyer, told THE CITY this week.

Salaam, now 48 and considering running for city council next year, was exonerated along with the other members of the Five in 2002 after another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime in prison.

But the rules for how law enforcement can interrogate children have remained largely the same in the 33 years since Salaam’s coerced “confession.”

While police must read minors their Miranda rights — letting them know they can remain silent, ask for a lawyer, and not incriminate themselves — many fail to understand what that actually means, according to defense attorneys representing juvenile clients.

“What we do know is that youth under the age of 18, particularly those most likely to encounter the justice system, simply do not have the tools to fully appreciate the nature of one’s Fifth Amendment right to silence,” said Marty Feinman, who until recently ran the Legal Aid Society’s juvenile practice, where he handled dozens of cases involving juvenile confessions, and who is still working with the nonprofit organization for public defenders on the legislative initiative.

“It renders that right meaningless,” Feinman added, “because it’s being nullified by someone who can’t understand what it means.”

In some cases, police officers bring in parents who also do not know what talking to the police could mean for a potential criminal case.

In addition, the police are officially permitted to lie and misrepresent information in order to coerce a confession.

Under the proposed legislation, which is expected to be reintroduced in January, minors would be required to speak specifically with a lawyer before waiving their rights and speaking to investigators.

It would also order that officers make every effort to contact parents or legal guardians before a child can be removed from the scene of an arrest and raise the bar on when an interrogation can be considered “necessary”.


The NYPD opposes the potential changes, noting that state law already requires officers to record video whenever police officers question anyone under the age of 18 in a court-approved youth room. The department also argues that parents, not lawyers, know what’s best for their children.

“Parents and guardians are best placed to make decisions for their children and this bill, while well intentioned, replaces the judgment of parents and guardians with an attorney who may never have met the person,” said a Police spokesman in an unsigned email.

Legal Aid’s Feinman called the videotape requirement a “positive move,” but noted it doesn’t ensure police officers follow the necessary rules before turning on the camera. For example: The false confessions in the case of the Central Park jogger were caught on video.

He and other advocates allege that parents themselves are often coerced and threatened by police trying to get their children to speak up without a lawyer.

Feinman called the NYPD’s reasoning “so flimsy it verges on dishonesty” and argued that parents “often unknowingly are law enforcement’s secret weapon” for cops trying to trick minors into speaking without an attorney.

Research has shown that minors focus primarily on what they feel is in their immediate best interests. According to experts, young people are also more likely to follow the instructions of older authority figures. “Decisions they make aren’t intelligent decisions,” Feinman said, noting that teens also can’t drive, vote, or serve in the military.

“These are children who are alien to the idea of ​​’rights,'” he said.

The NYPD also opposed the provision in the bill that requires officers to notify a parent or guardian before bringing a minor to the precinct.

“If a parent is unavailable, officers would have to hold the youth in the street for the neighborhood to see in police custody,” the NYPD spokesman wrote. “This law, while well intentioned, does not truly serve the best interests of the juvenile inmate and may actually harm those interests.”

Don’t be silent

In a 2020 case reported by THE CITY, detectives continued to question a Brooklyn teenager without an attorney present, even after he verbally refused to waive his Miranda rights.

However, the boy spoke to his mother and the police officers present used this to their advantage. The boy later told his Legal Aid Society lawyer that he was unaware that what he said to his mother could be used against him.

Child rights lawyers say this is just one example of how minors get caught up in a law enforcement network they don’t understand.

Advocates have brought together a nationwide coalition of around 60 youth justice organizations, public defenders, churches, elected officials and youth groups to launch the latest iteration of the Right2RemainSilent campaign.

A rally in support of the proposed law is scheduled for December 15 in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem.

The bill is sponsored by two Bronx Democrats, Rep. Latoya Joyner and state senator Jamaal Bailey. The proposed law was first introduced in 2020, but activists and police experts are hoping this is the year it finally makes its way onto the governor’s desk.

“I always remain cautiously optimistic,” Bailey told THE CITY, noting that the legislation was inspired by the Exonerated Five. “The pursuit of juvenile justice is something that is vitally important.”

He added: “I want to be very clear: we don’t want to stop law enforcement from doing their job. But we also want to make sure we protect young people who may not understand the seriousness of the conversations and the situations they find themselves in.”

Last year, the measure passed the assembly 105 to 45, but the Senate never voted on it.

Juvenile justice advocates note that other states such as Washington and California have passed similar laws in recent years.

None of New York City’s five district attorneys have commented publicly on the legislation, including Brooklyn Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan Attorney Alvin Bragg, who are often touted as criminal justice reformers (and have chosen to call them not to comment on the article).

years lost

For Jeffrey Deskovic, the proposed legislation is personal.

At age 16, he was convicted of the 1989 rape and murder of Angela Correa, a Peekskill High School classmate. The criminal case relied heavily on a confession he made to police without a lawyer or parent present.

Deskovic later recanted, but he served 16 years in prison before new DNA evidence matched another man, Steven Cunningham, who later confessed.

“As a 16-year-old being interrogated about a murder and a rape that I didn’t commit, I didn’t understand my rights,” Deskovic, who now works as a lawyer who campaigns for the release of those wrongly convicted, told THE CITY.

“The lack of this law has cost me 16 years in prison,” he added.

A review of the case commissioned by the Westchester County Attorney’s Office highlighted several flaws in the criminal justice system, including how police officers used “disturbing tactics” by taking advantage of his young age, which has been described as “psychological vulnerabilities.”

The police never contacted his mother, even during several interviews prior to his arrest.

The proposed legislation comes as criminal justice reformers are now trying to push Gov. Kathy Hochul forward on a range of issues. These include support for stalled legislation that would ease parole restrictions for the elderly behind bars based on individual assessments and streamline the sealing of criminal records, which often make it difficult for individuals to move on with life.

Further complicating the broad legislative push, some categories of crime, including transit incidents, have risen since the pandemic.

Salaam and others note that arresting and convicting the wrong people with false confessions allows the real perpetrators to commit more crimes and makes everyone less safe.

In the Central Park Five case, months after his attack on the Central Park jogger, Reyes fatally stabbed Lourdes Gonzalez, a 24-year-old mother of three.

“This young woman could have lived today if the system had worked,” Salaam said.

“The legislation should not be questioned,” he added, “it should be absolutely necessary.”