Who was Really “Wilding”? When They See Us Highlights The Wrongful Conviction of Black Youth with Language and Learning Disorders

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Author: Shameka Stanford, Ph,D., CCC-SLP/L, Juvenile Forensic Speech-Language Pathologist, Howard University

In the United States, there are hundreds of unspoken cases in which the vulnerability of young black males with language and learning disorders are not taken into account during police interrogations. Language and learning disorders are difficulties that are language based and can impact a youth’s expressive language, receptive language, comprehension, and reading skills. Within these cases, there is gross neglect in determining the youth’s competency- ability to demonstrate a degree of rational comprehension and actual understanding of their legal proceedings. The Central Park Five mini-series is a real-life jarring example of this vulnerability, and the epidemic and plight of black youth born with four automatic strikes - being black, underserved, sixteen, and living with language and learning disorders. The reality depicted in Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us Netflix miniseries indirectly made Mr. Kharey Wise the spokesperson to represent and evoke change for the silent epidemic this population experiences. Kharey Wise was a sixteen year-old black male triedas an adult in New York State, with glaringly evident language and learning difficulties that contributed to him receiving the most punitive sentence of the five young men.

Watching Kharey’s story unfold during the When They See Us Netflix miniseries, it becomes clear that his “confession” and ability to understand his criminal proceedings impacted by more than just his age-related immaturity. Kharey was also dealing with the impact of language and learning difficulties. Ava Duvernay’s development and unfolding of Kharey’s difficulties are brilliantly weaved between the lines of conversation between him and various communication partners. In the first episode, Kharey Wise, expertly played by Jharrel Jerome, is having a conversation with his girlfriend when she makes reference to his inconsistent attendance at school. In episode two of the series, the prosecution reports that Kharey missed weeks of school and was considered truant. This is the first indication that Kharey was academically “behind” in school and struggling with learning and retaining new information. Also in episode two of the series, Kharey expresses having “trouble” reading and understanding the meaning of terms and words used during his interrogation and trial (truant, turn profile, etc.). Deficits in Kharey’s problem-solving and comprehension skills are also portrayed during his false admission that, “I only did a rape once, and I don’t plan to do it again” implying he believed that confessing to a crime he did not commit, but also stating his remorse would be enough to allow him to go home. Supporting these demonstrations is also the documented fact reported in author Sarah Burn’s book, The Central Park Five, that Kharey Wise had “hearing problems from an early age, and a learning disability that affected his academic success”. Kharey’s story aligns with the research on the impact of a language and learning disability affecting youth’s literacy, social, pragmatic, decision-making, and expressive and receptive language skills. Although these disorders are not specific to any one race, ethnicity, or gender, within the criminal justice system language and learning disorders have mostly affected black youth who are disadvantaged and underserved, like Kharey Wise.

The U.S Supreme Court’s position is that age matters in interrogations. But how much is chronological age vs. cognitive age in the presence of language and learning disorders really taken into account during police interrogation and instances of coercion? Historically, the individual characteristics of the suspect has been consistently disregarded under a “one-size-fits-all reasonable-person standard”. This cookie-cutter approach of disregard has become common occurrence in police interrogations despite psychological research science that has contributed to our understanding of brain development in typically developing youth. Where was the recognition and protection of Kharey Wise and every other black male’s constitutional rights during interaction with police and the criminal justice system? There is a scarcity of research that explicitly explains the development of the brain in youth with language and learning disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Due to their increased vulnerability to tactics used to elicit admission, this may be one reason why they are overrepresented in the coercion of false confessions. Therefore, when situations arise like the District Attorney advising Kharey of his Miranda Rights without determining his inherent understanding of its meaning, it is important that we question how the tactics used to elicit the confession intersects with the youth’s language and learning disabilities. Specifically, language and learning disabilities can negatively impact comprehension of Miranda Rights  and the total legal proceeding. The language and learning skills necessary to understand Miranda Rights, the impact of waiving Miranda Rights, and the legal implications of admitting guilt can be affected by deficits in the following areas of skill:

  1. Ability to draw logical conclusions.
  2. Ability to Infer.
  3. Ability to critically evaluate a situation.
  4. Ability to rationally problem solve.
  5. Ability to comprehend secondary to a solid foundation in vocabulary skills.
  6. Ability to process verbally express information.
  7. Ability to properly respond to particular types of comprehension questions .
  8. Ability to immediately recall information.
  9. Ability to verbally express themselves at an age appropriate level.
  10.  Ability to read/decode written information and comprehend the content.
  11. Ability to present information in sequential order.
  12. Ability to maintain a topic during discourse.

These salient features can be recognized in Kharey’s presentation of varying confessions, consistent requests for questions to be repeated, difficulty recalling information verbally presented to him during the police interrogations, difficulty maintaining one topic at a time, and difficulty rewording information to be better understood when there was a communication breakdown due to age-appropriate vocabulary deficits.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in child language disorders and juvenile forensics, watching the injustice Kharey Wise experienced at the hands of our justice system was heartbreaking and infuriating. So, what can we do? Barry Field stated, “the interrogation room is the trial - confessions determine guilt”. As such, first and foremost, we must advocate for the inclusion of consultation from licensed and clinically certified speech-language pathologists that ensure the interrogation is conducted in a manner that does not burden the language and learning limitations of the youth.

Secondly, when interrogating individuals with language and learning difficulties, especially youth, we need to replace police interrogation tactics with more neutral techniques that support their language and learning abilities. Such as, determining explicit comprehension of rights prior to beginning interrogation, simplifying terminology commonly used in police interactions, avoiding ambiguous terms that may be misinterpreted to mean other things, and determining the ability to functionally answer WH-questions (what, where, who, why, and how), and verbally express themselves at an age-appropriate level.

Lastly, there are more youth in the system with language and learning disorders than we have cared to shed light on in the past. But it is time the legal system recognizes the pedagogical knowledge and skills speech-language pathologists have to contribute to the justice system in the areas of neurodevelopment, child language disorders, cognitive disorders, executive function, and speech/articulation disorders. It is past time legal and court personnel collaborate with Speech-Language Pathologists to eliminate the harsh and unconstitutional practices of policing that result in the over-representation of incarcerated black youth with language and learning disabilities in the system. This is a necessary approach to evoke change in a system where there are youth incarcerated who are still living the nightmare that Kharey Wise experienced for over 13 years.