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Editorial: Illinois takes big step to halt wrongful convictions involving juveniles

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A bill awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s almost-certain signature would make Illinois the first state in the nation to ban police interrogators from lying to juveniles in order to get a quick confession. The practice is heinous and manipulative, playing on vulnerable, frightened young people’s emotions with an eye toward winning a quick conviction instead of seeing that the guilty receive justice. Republicans as well as Democrats should find this practice abhorrent and should work to expand this law nationwide to help stop wrongful convictions.

The Illinois law was prompted by the nightmarish experience of four Black men — Michael Saunders, Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson and Vincent Thames — who spent more than a decade in prison for a 1994 rape and murder they did not commit. Back when they were arrested, the boys, known as the “Englewood Four,” ranged in age from 15 to 18. They were interrogated by Chicago police without a lawyer present.

As they would later describe the ordeal, the youths were alone, scared and disoriented when brought in for questioning. Police interrogators took turns grilling each of them, peppering the questions with 100% false though authoritative-sounding assertions that others in the group had already confessed or had identified the youth being interrogated as the perpetrator.

The sessions were capped with the entry of an officer playing the role of the “good” cop, who offered false assurances, such as that he knew the boy being questioned didn’t commit the crime, but if the boy signed a confession, he could go home.

Topping off the injustice was the fact that police had interviewed the real murderer on the very day the victim’s body was found. This is precisely why all lawmakers, regardless of political affiliation, should be enthusiastically on board with legal reforms that prevent police from engaging in manipulative behavior and punish overzealous prosecutors who engage in misconduct to win a guilty verdict. Not only do innocent people wind up in prison but the real perpetrator remains free to kill, rape or rob again. In this case, the killer — Johnny Douglas, whose semen and DNA was found on the victim’s body — was linked to multiple other rape and murder cases before he was shot to death in 2008.

There’s an additional incentive to legislatively curtail these abusive practices: When a person’s innocence is finally proven, states wind up paying hefty compensation settlements. In the case of the Englewood Four, Cook County taxpayers wound up paying around $31 million in wrongful-conviction compensation.

Regardless of the compensation, the four men will never be able to recover the time robbed from them because of convictions won not on proof of guilt but because of confessions gained through coercion and deception. Americans should never confuse that with justice, and Illinois lawmakers are helping ensure such injustices won’t recur in the future.

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