LEWISTON, Maine — A teenage arson suspect may have confessed to the crime because a Lewiston police detective gave him a “moral excuse” to confess, suggesting the teen had a right to be angry about living in a condemned apartment building that the officer said was unfit for his own dog, according to expert testimony of forensic psychologist Andrew Wisch, Ph.D., of Rockland.
The Bangor Daily News is not naming the suspect because he is a minor.
On Monday, the third day of testimony on a defense motion asking the court to suppress the boy’s confession that he set fire to an apartment building on Blake Street, Wisch said Lewiston Detective Robert Morin told the boy he “had a right to be angry; anyone would be angry being in there.”
The teen’s attorney, Allan Lobozzo, filed a motion to suppress statements the boy made to police about his involvement in the fire, arguing police never read the then-12-year-old his legal rights and that the teen did not understand the consequences of talking to police.
On May 2, after fire consumed the Blake Street building along with two other buildings on Bates and Pine streets, leaving 75 people homeless, Lewiston police went to the Ramada Inn to talk to witnesses, including the suspect.
After several minutes, Morin asked whether the boy would agree to come to the station to continue the interview. He agreed and was driven to the station in a police cruiser. From there, he was seated in what Wisch described as a “fairly stark” interrogation room for a taped interview.
The boy was not given a Miranda warning, which would have informed him he had the right to remain silent when questioned; anything he said or did could be used against him in court; he could consult an attorney before speaking and have one present during questioning; he could have an attorney appointed for him before questioning; and he could answer questions without an attorney present and stop answering at any time until he talked to an attorney.
Within 15 minutes of the start of the interview, the boy confessed to setting the fire, a confession that Lobozzo is arguing should be suppressed because the boy’s age and maturity prevented him from understanding the consequences of making such a confession.
According to Wisch, when he interviewed the boy at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, where he is being detained, he talked in detail about how he felt during the police interview. When Wisch asked him directly whether he felt he could leave the room, the teen said, “I had a feeling I kinda couldn’t.”
In Lewiston District Court on Monday, Lobozzo seized on that thought and asked Wisch whether, compared to the typical teenage boy, the suspect had the emotional capacity or maturity to stop the interview without being told he could.
“Most 12-year-olds, unless they were told they could leave, would probably not know they could leave,” Wisch said.
Wisch, who conducted a court-ordered evaluation of the boy, had been instructed to evaluate the teen to form an opinion whether he was competent to stand trial, whether he had the capacity and understanding to volunteer his confession and to assess his risk to himself and others.
In addition to watching the three-hour taped police interview and reading through court records, Wisch met with the boy for three hours at Long Creek and determined that he was intelligent and had strong verbal skills. He said he also determined that the teen feels compelled to defend his mother, particularly when it comes to her being questioned by the Department of Health and Human Services.
And, he said, during their meeting, he determined that as police questioned him, the teen “became preoccupied with the idea that he would be sent to Long Creek, which he was frightened of.” And that fear, Wisch said, likely clouded his judgment and contributed to his willingness to talk to police.
According to Lobozzo, when interviewing the boy, Morin minimized the fire in an effort to elicit a confession, which is a common interview technique. But, Lobozzo said, children are more susceptible to this concept of moral justification than adults are, and are much more likely to impulsively confess.
Wisch acknowledged that teens have a greater degree of impulsiveness than adults and are more likely to cling to a moral justification if offered the opportunity, particularly when being interviewed by a police officer in an interrogation room.
Lobozzo made the point that Morin was not in uniform and is “a very nice man,” but he’s still “a police officer with a weapon on his hip, which would certainly have made an impression on a young man,” a statement Wisch agreed with.
Wisch declined to say whether he believed the boy made his confession voluntarily, noting that was the judge’s decision to make. However, he did say that at no time during the taped interview did Morin threaten the boy nor did he present as “particularly suggestible, acquiescent or compliant for a teen,” meaning that he did not follow suggestions blindly.
“Having said that, he’s still a teenager and immature,” Wisch said, stating that the defendant’s mental status at the time of confession must be considered, including “the idea that confession may have been motivated by shame at what he had done.”
During the hearing, Wisch mentioned the boy’s intellectual abilities had been tested at Long Creek and, although he demonstrated some emotional difficulties, the teen scored very high in reading and verbal comprehension. After the hearing, when asked whether the boy may have understood a Miranda warning had one been offered, Lobozzo thought he might, given his high comprehension skills.
Lobozzo has until Aug. 19 to file his brief in support of the motion to suppress; Assistant District Attorney Melanie Portas has until Sept. 3 to file for the state.
Two others charged with arson in connection with a spree of unrelated fires in the downtown last May have been found incompetent to stand trial.
A 13-year-old Lewiston boy and Bryan Wood, 23, of Lewiston have each been found incompetent to stand trial and have been ordered released to the custody of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for further evaluation.
Another arson suspect, Brian Morin, 30, of Lewiston is being held in Androscoggin County Jail awaiting trial on two counts of arson in connection with fires set at two vacant apartment buildings on Bartlett Street and a third, occupied building on Horton Street on May 6.