By Jeremy Loudenback, ChronicleofSocialChange.org
On July 25th, 1990, the course of Jerome Dixon’s life changed forever. After 25 hours of interrogation, the then 17-year-old Oakland youth would find himself sentenced to decades in prison.
As California state legislators now ponder a bill that would change the way law enforcement officers are able to question juveniles, the fallout from that day continues to haunt Dixon, now 44 and living in Los Angeles.
“Even to this day, I still can’t sleep a full night. I’m waking up two or three hours into my sleeping,” he said. “Why is that? That’s because of what happened to me in that interrogation room.”
Alone, and pinned into the corner of a dim police interrogation room, Dixon felt small and powerless on that summer night, trying to find some way out of his desperate situation.
About 10 hours before, just after midnight, the Oakland police had hauled him into the station as a murder suspect. At around 10:00, a young man was shot to death in the crime-plagued West Oakland neighborhood where the teenaged Dixon had been hanging out with friends.
In the cramped room where he would spend the next 25 hours, Dixon recounted his whereabouts leading up to the moment when he was arrested for the murder.
At first, the detectives were friendly, offering him water and food. But after about five hours, the mood shifted. The police investigators began to press him, commanding Dixon to place himself at the scene of the crime and stop “playing games.”
By about 15 hours in, Dixon was exhausted. Two teams of investigators rotated in and out of the room during his interrogation, switching off every couple hours. The only window in the room was covered by a piece of cardboard, which was sometimes lifted, Dixon remembers, to reveal faces watching him.
Dixon says he lost track of whether it was day or night outside.
“I felt extremely hopeless at that point,” Dixon said. “Whatever self-esteem I had at that point was literally gone.
“The only way to get out of that corner was to tell them what they wanted to hear. In retrospect, when I think back to the mind of a 17-year-old kid, that was the only way out.”
By the 21st hour, Dixon said he was a shell of himself. He remembers putting this head on the table, in tears. Finally, after another round of questioning, he says he gave up and told the officers he would tell them whatever they wanted to hear.
“I remember the investigating officer saying, ‘Finally, now we’re getting somewhere,’” Dixon recalled. “By the end of the interrogation, I would have confessed to anything.”
After he signed a confession, the police officers finally allowed Dixon his first phone call.
“I wasn’t able to talk to my mom until the 25th hour and unfortunately they didn’t allow me to come home until 21-and-a-half years later,” Dixon said.
The confession and poor legal defense led Dixon to accept a plea deal in the murder case, leading to him reaching adulthood in California correctional facilities across the state. Dixon was first sent to the California Youth Authority (now known as the California Division of Juvenile Justice) system before being transferred to the adult system.
Throughout it all, he maintained his innocence, saying that he had nothing to do with the murder. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Dixon was granted his freedom through California’s parole system because of the irregularities in his case — namely, his interrogation and the fact that police officers had introduced him to one of the key witnesses in the case while he was in police custody.
During more than 21 years spent in state prison, Dixon often thought about those fateful 25 hours. He is not sure if he waived his Miranda rights, which give those accused of a crime the right not to speak to the police and to request a lawyer.
“I just wanted to get out of that situation by any means I could at that point,” Dixon said. “My teenage self had no idea of what those constitutional rights meant or what it meant to give them up.”
Dixon’s experience is at the center of a push by the California state legislature to expand the rights of children under the age of 18 when they are interrogated by law enforcement officers.
Although California law already provides counsel to youth accused of crimes, Senate Bill (SB) 395 would mandate that all juveniles consult with a lawyer before an interrogation and before they would be able to waive their Miranda rights. The goal of this consultation would be to ensure that juveniles understand their Miranda rights before an interrogation. The state Senate voted to pass SB 395 on May 30, and the bill is now being considered by the Assembly.
Discussions about whether children as young as 10 years old can grasp their Miranda rights have been brewing for a few years. In seminal cases like Miller v. Alabama (2012) and J.D.B. v North Carolina (2011), the Supreme Court has suggested children should be held to different standards than adults because of their still-developing cognitive abilities.
Recent studies also suggest that youth often do not understand Miranda rights and lack the ability to comprehend the ability to understand what waiving these rights means.
Rourke Stacy, a juvenile justice advocate who has argued a pair of juvenile confession cases before the Supreme Court of California, said that the Miranda rights were not crafted for young or immature minds, like the young people she once represented in the juvenile justice system.
“I can honestly say in my 15 years of doing criminal defense work, I have seen less than five kids uphold their Miranda rights, [youth] who are actually able to say, ‘No I don’t want to talk to you,’” Stacy said. “This means that in California, youth are not getting the rights they deserve.”
Another concern is the likelihood that juveniles will be coerced into false confessions during the interrogation process. There is limited research on the topic, but a 2005 study of youth who were later exonerated in a criminal case, 42 percent — three times the rate for adults — had falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit.
The interrogation process, advocates say, is excessive, forcing youth to withstand high-pressure methods like the discredited Reid technique that seeks to isolate youth and confront them over inconsistent actions. Psychological studies of youth find that their age makes them much more susceptible to agreeing to leading statements from interrogators. Juveniles are also much less likely to understand legal terminology and complicated legal questions.
“Right now it is very easy to interrogate minors and coerce confessions,” said California State Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who introduced SB 395. “Law enforcement can remove children from school, without notifying parents or guardians, interrogate them for hours, lie to them, tell them they have evidence against them, or anything they want.”
Last year, the California legislature approved a similar bill, SB 1052. It sat on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk until the tail end of his deadline to either sign or veto legislation.
Brown sent back the legislation, but left a rare parting message for advocates and opponents, saying that “we need a much fuller understanding of the ramifications of this measure.”
But Cory Salzillo, the legislative director of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said that another year has not changed the calculus for opponents of the bill. The bill would make the job of law enforcement officers more difficult by delaying investigations, Salzillo said.
“It may be that law enforcement may want to just talk to a minor and if that’s the case, they would have to wait for counsel,” he said. “The bottom line is that the bill casts doubt on statements that are otherwise truthful that can be called into question because a minor hadn’t consulted with a counsel.”
Dixon, who never had the opportunity to call to his mother or any lawyer, has replayed the events of July 25th thousands of times over the past 27 years.
Getting through his time inside with a clean record required a steady discipline and an abiding faith in a future beyond the prison walls.
“Just imagine holding a live grenade,” Dixon said. “Those were my emotions. I knew that the moment that I would let that live grenade go is the moment I would implode, but I couldn’t because that was my sanity. I held on dearly to that live grenade every single day.”
On October 17, 2011, at 11:45 a.m., Dixon walked out the front door of the California Men’s Colony facility in San Luis Obispo, Calif., after the state granted his parole. Since then, Dixon has managed to find a way past resentment and the regret of missing out on the major milestones that most people celebrate with loved ones, like their 21st birthday and first love.
He credits the guidance of other formerly incarcerated people at the Los Angeles-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition for helping him transition to the world outside and embrace new opportunities, like helping to build a skate park for youth in Costa Rica.
Dixon has built a successful career as a project manager for a construction firm in Los Angeles, overseeing several commercial and residential projects. But best of all, he’s been able to finally let go of the some of the constant stress from years of incarceration.
Part of what’s helped is speaking up for kids who might be in his position now — alone and facing questions from law enforcement officers pushing them to a breaking point without an idea of what rights they have.
“I just wanted to come home and be present,” Dixon said. “But that wasn’t enough. Now that I’m in a great position, I need to stand on a platform where I can be seen and heard. That way at least I can put myself in a position where I can help those that are in similar situations.”
Jeremy Loudenback is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.