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Experts: Interrogation of boy, 8, 'out of bounds'

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  • NEW: Boy can leave jail next week for 48 hours to spend Thanksgiving with mom
  • Boy says he shot dad once and then again because "he was suffering"
  • In first part of tape released, boy says he came home and found men shot
  • Lawyers: Police didn't read boy his rights, questioned him without parent or attorney
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By Ann O'Neill
CNN
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(CNN) -- The third-grader's legs dangle at times from an overstuffed chair as he answers the questions of two female police officers. His manner and voice are casual, even helpful, but his words are shocking.

Police say an 8-year-old boy confessed to murder. Legal analysts say the questioning crossed the line.

And so, legal analysts say, were the methods police used to obtain them.

By the time the boy was finished talking, say police in St. Johns, Arizona, he'd confessed to a premeditated double murder.

The 8-year-old is charged in juvenile court with killing his father, Vincent Romero, 29, along with Tim Romans, 39, a man who rented a room in Romero's home. Police have said the boy confessed to shooting the men. He has not entered a plea.

He will be allowed to leave a juvenile jail for 48 hours to spend Thanksgiving with his mother, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The furlough will start at noon November 26 and end at noon on November 28, Apache County court administrator Betty Smith told CNN.

Legal analysts who spoke with CNN were united in their opinion that the police questioning was improper and that any incriminating statements the boy made shouldn't stand up in court.

A review of the tapes shows that the boy's demeanor was more suitable for a session of show-and-tell than for a soul-baring confession as he describes the carnage he saw inside his home. He does not appear to be depressed, scared or sorrowful. Video Watch police interrogate the boy »

The body of his father's roommate was sprawled downstairs, he says. He ran through the house, shouting, "Daaaad! Dad!" His father was lying dead upstairs.

"There was blood all over his face, I think, and I think I touched it," he tells the officers. He showed them how he prodded his father's body with his foot, checking "to see if he was a little bit alive."Video Watch the boy describe the scene »

Then, he says, he sat by his father's body and cried for half an hour.

Later, as the police officers' questions become increasingly pointed, the boy says he shot the men. He says he shot his father a second time "so he wouldn't suffer." Video Watch boy say he shot his "suffering" dad »

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That statement came, several analysts agreed, long after the camera should have been shut off and the boy advised of his rights to keep silent or consult a lawyer. Even then, they said, it is doubtful a child that young could understand those rights.

Nowhere on the tape, which police call a confession, is the boy read his rights. No parent or guardian is present as he speaks.

"The law enforcement conduct in this case is inexplicable: from interrogating a third-grader without the presence of a parent or other adult to releasing an inflammatory videotape before a trial," said Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's senior legal analyst.

"It's important, of course, to protect society from dangerous people of whatever age, but this case has been handled in such a way that seems to disregard the major challenges of dealing with such a young suspect," Toobin added.

Sunny Hostin, another CNN legal analyst, agrees. "I've never seen anything like this," she said. "This is never how it's done. This was completely out of bounds." Video Watch why the interrogation troubles Hostin »

A judge in Arizona has issued a gag order prohibiting police and prosecutors from commenting further on the case. Although authorities once planned to try the boy for murder in an adult court, the case has been referred to juvenile court, where the proceedings are less transparent.

Still, there's the tape.

As the questioning begins, the boy is treated more like a witness than a suspect. One of the officers advises: "I have to tell you the truth. I can't lie. Debbie can't lie, and you can't lie to us. We're just gong to be talking truth, OK? We're not going to make anything up. We're just going to be honest, OK, even if it's bad stuff, OK? We just need to tell the truth, just us, in this room."

"I'm comfortable with the way they approached the beginning of the interview," said CNN law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks, a former homicide detective. But the questions became more confrontational as the interrogation continued.

At some point, he said, the boy stopped being a victim or a witness and became a suspect. That's when he should have been read his rights, Brooks said. That's when a parent or legal guardian should have entered the room, he added.

He said the turning point on the tape comes when the officer expresses doubt over the boy's story about not being home at the time of the shootings: "You're sure?" one officer asks. "Because I heard something that somebody said that somebody was calling your name and you weren't answering."

At that point, Brooks said, the interview turned into an interrogation.

Children are highly suggestible and require different handling, said "In Session" anchor Lisa Bloom, who represented sexually abused children as an attorney. Children are eager to please, she said, anxious to give adults the answers the child thinks the adult wants to hear.

"Cases are legion where juveniles have been coerced into making false confessions," she said. "All you have to do with an 8-year-old is make it clear what answer you want."

In this case, the officers made it clear that the boy's initial description of what happened wasn't the answer they were looking for, she added. Video Watch Lisa Bloom say interrogators were leading the boy »

Bloom points to other cases in which false confessions were coerced from juveniles. Notable among them, she said, was the case of Michael Crowe, a teen who falsely confessed to killing his sister near San Diego, California. A transient later was convicted in the slaying.

In the Crowe case, as in the Arizona case, the police videotaped the statement. Bloom said that should occur in all juvenile cases.

Apache County Attorney Christopher Candelaria said the tape was released because it was considered public record.

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But he did not elaborate on why authorities would consider the police interrogation of an 8-year-old to be public record. Juvenile proceedings usually take place behind closed doors.

At the end of the tape, the boy buries his face in his jacket as one officer asks, "You OK, sweetie?"

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