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False confessions not a relic of past

Updated: January 27, 2013 6:11AM



How can a man sit in prison for a double murder committed 20 years ago at a moment that authorities say he was in a police lockup?

Last year, my colleagues and I were invited to meet with Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy to discuss our concerns about juvenile justice. We limited ourselves to one issue: interrogations.

We explained that detectives were receiving no specialized training in juvenile interrogations, and tactics used on seasoned adult felons — such as isolating the suspect, implying leniency in exchange for a confession, or lying about evidence — were inappropriate with young, inexperienced suspects and held an unacceptable risk of inducing false confessions. McCarthy said he was revamping the department, including the detective division, and as this continued, we would be invited into the conversation.

Recently, however, in response to a 60 Minutes report that labeled Chicago “The False Confession Capital” and highlighted the many juvenile false confessions in two high profile Cook County cases, McCarthy suggested that false confessions were a problem of the past and explained what had been done “to solve the problem.” He referred to state legislation that requires electronic recording of interrogations and referenced “better training.” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez recently has said much the same, suggesting that electronic recording has cured the problem.

While McCarthy and Alvarez acknowledge past problems, the reality is that the city and county have fought to preserve many old convictions — where teenagers confessed — even in the face of extremely powerful exculpatory evidence in cases other than those on 60 Minutes. Cases like Daniel Taylor, who remains in prison based on his two-decade-old confession at age 17 to a double murder even where police records, and accounts of officers, confirm he was in police lockup during the murders. Or that of Charles Johnson and his teenage co-defendants — all of whom confessed to a 1995 double murder; their convictions remain intact even where forensic evidence from the two crime scenes, five miles apart, points to a convicted felon who still roams the street.

False confessions are not a relic of the past. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court explained the pressures of custodial interrogation cause a “frighteningly high percentage of people” to falsely confess, a problem particularly acute to juveniles. As to the Illinois law requiring electronic recording of interrogations — it applies only to homicides, and false confessions happen in all kinds of cases. And the recording requirement triggers only when a suspect is in custody, a legally nuanced issue. These loopholes could be closed by requiring recording in all felony cases the moment questioning starts.

The best thing that can be done is to educate the confession-takers. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in conjunction with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, published a guide to effective juvenile interview and interrogation and recently invited me to its national gathering to discuss false confessions. Yet in my own city, the police superintendent and state’s attorney say past cases have been rectified and the problem has been solved. It is simply not true.

Joshua Tepfer is a staff attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, and Co-Director of the Center’s Youth Project.



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