The California State Assembly is expected to vote on a bill this week that would strengthen Miranda rights for some juveniles, allowing them to consult an attorney before waiving those rights and talking to law enforcement.
According to Jerome Dixon, that’s what happened to him.
In 1990, Dixon was a 17-year-old high school student, hanging out with friends late one summer night when he was picked up by the police. Officers threw him in the back of a patrol car. As they started to drive, Dixon could see they were making a stop before heading to the police station.
“There was a dead body laying on the ground in front of the patrol car,” Dixon recalled. “At that point a sergeant came up to me and they opened the car door. And the sergeant said, ‘Young man, you have a lot of explaining to do about that dead body.’”
They then drove to the police station and Dixon was led to a white-walled room with one window that was covered by cardboard. There, Dixon was interrogated for 25 hours. Dixon said he was cold and lost track of time.
“The authorities told me that the only way to get out of this situation was if I told them what they wanted to hear,” Dixon said. “So in the 25th hour I was nothing more but an empty shell of a child, caved in. And I told them what they wanted to hear.”
That’s when, according to Dixon, he confessed to a murder he said he didn’t commit.
“We know that as compared to adults children are much more likely to falsely confess when they’re in a situation of interrogation by the police,” Calvin said, citing a 2005 study from the Journal of Law and Criminology. “If you have a right, and you can give that right up without understanding what it is or what it means to give it up, then it’s not really a right.”
But Todd Riebe, president of the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA), said this legislation would make it much harder to use interrogations as a tool in investigations. The CDAA opposes the bill.
Riebe, who is the district attorney in Amador County, said that in “the vast majority of cases, the advice from counsel is going to be ‘don’t talk.’” This would have a chilling effect on investigations, he said, making it much harder to uncover new information.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill that applied to all juveniles, including those 17 and younger.
To try to get Brown’s buy-in this year, legislators amended SB 395 last week. They brought the age requirement down to apply to youth 15 and younger, and added a mandatory panel of experts to examine the impacts of this law no later than 2023.
Riebe said those changes aren’t enough to satisfy his concerns.
“We don’t have to go this far,” Riebe said. “Let’s address the problem in a different way. One that doesn’t foreclose that avenue of investigation.” Another way to address the concern, Riebe said, is to videotape interrogations.
Jerome Dixon said the amended version of SB 395 is a step in the right direction, but he wished it still included all minors so that, if it passes, it could help youth who were like him — a 17-year old in an interrogation room.
“If I had legal counsel, I wouldn’t have been in there for 25 hours,” Dixon said. “And I wouldn’t have served 21-and-a-half years for a crime I didn’t commit.”
After 21 years, Dixon was released from prison in 2011. Now that he’s out, he spends his free time advocating for criminal justice reform. One of the things he’s doing is lobbying for SB 395.