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Spotlight on Problems of Juvenile Interrogations in Tennessee

By Paul Cates

In the wake of news that a Wisconsin federal appeals court refused to release Brendan Dassey of “Making a Murderer” from prison, the Tennessean has reported on the vulnerabilities that juveniles face when under interrogation. Dassey’s conviction was reversed based on the fact that the teen had been coerced into confessing to the murder of Teresa Halbach with his uncle Steven Avery, yet he remains in prison. The article notes that nearly half of all states require police to allow parents to be informed and present during interrogations of their children and that 19 states require interrogations of juveniles to be videotaped. Tennessee, however, has no minimum age for interrogations and treats children the same as adults for the purposes of interrogations.

Related: Four Things that You Need to Know about the Brendan Dassey Case

Illustrating the potential harm that occurs during interrogations of juveniles, the paper pointed to the case of Oudon Panyanouvong who pleaded guilty to the murder of Sangler Stabler and received a 40-year sentence on the advice of his attorney after confessing to the crime. Soon after agreeing to the sentence, Panyanouvong recanted and sought to have his conviction reversed. Video of the interrogation shows that Panyanouvong clearly did not understand his right to have an attorney present during the interrogation. After asking the officer if an attorney would be available “right now,” the interrogating detective says, “Hmm” and later tells the teen that he would have to go to court to have an attorney appointed.

Rev. Diana DeWitt, a Methodist minister who has been advocating for Panyanouvong’s release for more than a decade is quoted saying, “It was just such a failure of the process. There were so many injustices in Oudon’s case – no parents being present during the interrogation, being held for eight hours. You can see clearly that even Oudon, a 16-year-old with English as a second language, knew he had a right to an attorney – and they didn’t get him one.”

You can read more about Panyanouvong’s case and watch a series of videos on juvenile sentencing, here.

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