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Illinois Measure Is Intended To Prevent Juveniles' False Confessions

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Illinois is set to become the first state in the country to bar police from lying to kids during criminal interrogations. That legislation is intended to help prevent false confessions by juveniles. Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ reports.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: To understand the motivation behind this bill and how it won almost unanimous support in a divided Illinois legislature, it helps to know the story of the Englewood Four. It was March of 1995. Chicago police hauled in four Black teenagers from the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood and accused them of the rape and murder of Nina Glover.

TERRILL SWIFT: I was sat down, and they cuffed me to a chair. And they were - you know, started asking me questions about this rape and murder. And I'm - whoa. What? Excuse me?

SMITH: That's Terrill Swift, one of the teens picked up by police. He told them he didn't even know what they were talking about. They didn't believe him.

SWIFT: Oh, you know what you guys did. You guys raped and murdered this woman. And, you know, he was like, yeah, you're going to die in jail. You're never going home. My life was, you know, flashing before me, sitting there like I'm - how am I going to die in jail? I don't even know what's going on.

SMITH: After hours of that, Swift says he started to believe them.

SWIFT: I've never been to jail. I don't know how jail works. You're telling me I'm never going to see my family. I don't know if that's true. You know, I don't know.

SMITH: As Swift sat with his life flashing before him, an officer walked in and said, hey, I know you didn't do this, but the other kids say you did, so I need you to cooperate. Admit you were there, and you can go home. So he cooperated. Ultimately, all four teenagers confessed to a brutal rape and murder they did not commit. DNA evidence exonerated them almost 20 years later.

Now, this new legislation, which is expected to be signed shortly by the governor, would bar officers from deceiving young people in the way Chicago detectives deceived Swift and his co-defendants. Under the bill, if police lie to a juvenile during an interrogation about the facts of the case, like telling them a witness saw you do this, or if they lie about the consequences of confessing, telling them, just say you did it, and you get to go home, the juvenile's confession will be thrown out. The legislation has the support of law enforcement and prosecutor groups in the state. Republican Illinois state Representative Jim Durkin is also a former prosecutor.

JIM DURKIN: I am not soft on crime, but I'm also - I'm harder on reaching the truth. Yes, juveniles do commit crimes, and juveniles will be held accountable for their crimes. But they also can be manipulated. It's the classic situation. Just tell me what happened - tell me the truth, and I'll make sure you can go home.

LAURA NIRIDER: Young people under age 18 are about two to three times more likely than adults to confess to crimes that they didn't commit.

SMITH: That's Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

NIRIDER: What we've come to understand is that police lies about the evidence and police lies about the consequences of confessing can cause innocent people to believe it's actually in their interest to falsely confess.

SMITH: And that's exactly what happened to Terrill Swift. Police lied and told him all the other kids said he had done it. They told him if he said what they told him to say and signed the confession, he could go home to his mom and dad.

SWIFT: I mean, 17. I mean, again, like, you think you're grown, but you're not, you know? And you also - you think the police are going to help you - and especially when you didn't do anything. So it was like, OK, yeah. I'll - what do you need me to do? Yeah, I'll help. And helping led to me being convicted and losing 15 1/2 years of my life.

SMITH: The deception police used in their interrogations of the Englewood Four stole years from the lives of innocent young men. It also ended up costing taxpayers more than $60 million in legal payouts. Wrongful conviction payouts have become increasingly common in the state. On top of that, the DNA evidence that exonerated Swift and his co-defendants, it actually pointed to another man, a serial rapist. Evidence suggests he went on to rape and kill again. Illinois state Representative Justin Slaughter says that's another consequence of police lying to juveniles.

JUSTIN SLAUGHTER: Sometimes people forget, when you have incarcerated the wrong individual, the actual offender is still out in the community. And all too often, what we've seen is these offenders go on to commit further crimes.

SMITH: Slaughter and others hope the bill he helped craft will serve as a model. And there are already similar bills being considered by state lawmakers in New York and Oregon.

For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.