ADDENDUM: On November 16, Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Paul Biebel granted the motion to vacate of all four defendants in the Englewood case: Vincent Thames, Terrill Swift, Michael Saunders, and Harold Richardson. The Charles Johnson case has been continued to December 9 when Judge Joseph Kazmierzki will decide whether Charles Johnson will get a chance for a new trial.
Enough! When I learned that Cook County prosecutors had finally moved to vacate the convictions of five men who were wrongfully convicted as teens of a 1991 murder and rape in Dixmoor, the word that kept ringing in my head was -- “Enough!” One of those men was my client, Robert Taylor, who walked out of prison on Thursday (see below).
Enough! How many Chicago area police officers are going to obtain false confessions from black children because they use the same tactics on them that they use on adults? How many more prosecutors are going to ignore multiple red flags that these “confessions” are unreliable? How many juries will convict defendants because they can't imagine that anyone would confess to a crime they did not commit?
The freeing of the Dixmoor Five may prove to be just the tip of the juvenile false confession iceberg. On November 16, a Cook County Circuit Court Judge is going to determine whether the convictions of four other teenagers from Englewood should be vacated. In an eerily similar factual scenario to the Dixmoor case, Terrill Swift (see below), Michael Saunders, Harold Richardson, and Vincent Thames each confessed to a 1995 murder and rape. They were convicted despite DNA that excluded them prior to trial. That same DNA has now been matched to an adult serial killer who went on to kill and rape other women.
MICHAEL SAUNDERS HAROLD RICHARDSON
The very next day, November 17, a Cook County judge will decide whether Charles Johnson, who is serving life without parole, will get a new lease on life. Johnson, along with Larod Styles and two other teenagers, confessed to a December 1995 murder and armed robbery of two South Side used car dealers. The teens were convicted even though dozens of fingerprints at multiple crime scenes did not match any of them. Several of these prints have now been matched to a man who left his fingerprints and palmprints in two places: on cars touched by the killers on the lot before the murders and on the adhesive side of a window sticker that the killers peeled off a car they stole from the lot after the murder. This stolen car was abandoned a block from “Mr. Fingerprint’s ” home. No connection exists between "Mr. Fingerprints" and and any of the defendants.
And then there is Daniel Taylor. Only 17, Taylor signed a detailed confession to a 1992 North Side double murder after being interrogated by Chicago Police for hours. Taylor had what appeared to be a rock-solid alibi: he was in the Cook County jail at the time of the crime. Prosecutors tried him anyway, arguing that although a “Daniel Taylor” was in custody, it was not “the Daniel Taylor.” All appeared lost for Taylor after he was convicted and both state and federal courts turned down his appeals.
Recently, however, my colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions found new evidence showing that the Chicago Police knew all along that the right Daniel Taylor was in custody. The police had interviewed Taylor’s cellmate who confirmed Taylor’s alibi. They never turned over their reports of this interview to the defense. Based on this new evidence, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently granted Taylor permission to seek relief in the federal courts. For the first time in two decades, Taylor has hope that he may be freed.
Enough! It’s not enough to be outraged by these cases. The following steps must be taken to prevent false and coerced confessions of youthful suspects in the future.
First, strict time limits should be placed on juvenile interrogations. Officers who insist on interrogating children with tag teams, in the middle of the night, and for hours on end must know that they risk losing any resulting confessions. Similarly, such high pressure tactics as lying about evidence, minimizing the crime or its consequences, and suggesting that a suspect could go home, avoid jail, or “get help” if he confesses, should be forbidden when the suspect is under the age of 18.
Second, all interviews and interrogations of children must be electronically recorded. Without a recording, there’s no way to know if the confession is voluntary or if the details in the confession came from the suspect or were fed to him by the police. Unrecorded confessions of child suspects should be inadmissible at trial.
Third, judges must act as gatekeepers of unreliable confessions. Currently, judges must allow into evidence even the most fanciful of confessions unless they find coercion from law enforcement. But judges must have the power to exclude confessions when they are untrustworthy. Before confessions are presented to juries, the State should be required to prove that they are corroborated by other evidence and not contaminated by police-fact feeding.
Finally, courts should allow experts to educate jurors about false confessions and should give juries cautionary instructions about the reliability of confession evidence. Police officers, prosecutors, and judges should receive training on the risks associated with false confessions, how to distinguish reliable from unreliable confessions, and the vulnerabilities of children to police pressure.
These suggested reforms may not be enough to stop Cook County’s vicious cycle of false and coerced confessions of teens. But we must shake up the system before any more children are forced to spend the prime of their lives locked up for crimes they confessed to, but did not, commit.
Steven A. Drizin is the Legal Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.