Confession Contamination in Cook County: Demonizing Youth in False Confession Narratives

In Cook County's juvenile false confession cases, police officers and prosecutors have taken confession contamination to a new level. Not only did they feed facts to suspects, they scripted entire narratives for them.
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Cook County, Ill., is home to more documented proven false confessions than any place else in the United States. This distinction prompted 60 Minutes to dub Cook County as "The False Confession Capital."

Many of Cook County's false confessions have involved juvenile offenders. My colleagues and I at Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth have documented at least 18 false confessions from children under the age of 18 between 1986 and 1999. All of these false confessions were to murders, rape-murders, or rapes. All of the false confessors were black.

Most of these false confessions were highly detailed, often containing facts of the crime that had not been released to the public and thus could only have been known by the true perpetrators. The fact that these juveniles supposedly knew this "inside information" became the centerpiece of the State's cases and the main reason why most of the defendants who took their cases to trial were wrongfully convicted.

Because DNA and other evidence has proven them innocent, we now know that these defendants did not have specialized knowledge of the crimes to which they confessed. Police officers and prosecutors contaminated their confessions by feeding the details to them.

Law professors who have studied false confession cases, including me, have suggested that contamination is inadvertent, the result of sloppy police interrogation practices like using leading questions, showing suspects crime scene photos, or taking them to visit crime scenes. Such tactics leak details to innocent suspects who use them to cobble together seemingly credible confessions after their wills have been broken by hours of coercive questioning. But after reviewing the content of some of Cook County's juvenile false confessions, I am no longer persuaded that all such contamination is accidental.

In Cook County's juvenile false confession cases, police officers and prosecutors have taken confession contamination to a new level. Not only did they feed facts to suspects, they scripted entire narratives for them. These storylines often contained false characterizations of the crimes, the defendants and their motives and even made-up bits of dialogue between the defendants that were clearly designed to demonize the juvenile defendants, inflame the passions of jurors, and ensure that jurors would convict them.

Take the case of the Englewood Four, in which Chicago detectives obtained confessions from four black teens to the 1995 murder and rape of a prostitute. Each of the confessions contain the same basic false narrative -- that the crime was a gang rape committed by teenage members of the Blackstones street gang against a drug addict who had failed to pay back her drug debt to the gang. At the time of the confessions, Chicago's murder rate had skyrocketed as rival gangs waged war over control of the crack cocaine trade. During this time, there was no better way to demonize a young black man in the eyes of a jury than to attribute his crime to gang-related motives, even if the label didn't fit.

The crime narrative in the Englewood confessions reads like "pulp fiction." The confessions are peppered with gang-lingo ("Stones," "security"), the defendants are referred to by gang nicknames ("Mo-Mike," "Pug" and "The Undertaker"), and the victim is described in gangsta rap-like terms repeatedly as a "hype" or a "trick" or a "bitch." After the boys have taken their turns raping the victim in a basement, one of the boys supposedly said, "let's change" (meaning "kill") "the bitch," prompting another boy to beat her to death with a shovel and another to strangle her. After one of the boys cried, "we gotta get the bitch outta here," some of the boys wrapped her body in a sheet and carried her down the street before throwing her body in a dumpster. Then, as if to underscore their lack of morality, one boy supposedly told the police that he went home to listen to the radio and then went to bed, while another said that he went out with his girlfriend.

The false confessions of three teens in the "Dixmoor Five" case tapped directly into the emerging "superpredator" trope -- the idea that this generation's youth were amoral, remorseless beings who would kill, maim or rape without a second thought. The three confessions described how the boys -- all again labelled gang members -- abducted a 14-year-old classmate in 1991, chased her when she tried to flee, caught here in a field, and then took turns raping her before one of the boys killed her by shooting her point blank in the face. In chilling terms, one boy's confession describes how the shooter said he "was fittin' to fuck the bitch" and taunted her during the assault by "kissing her and slapping her and asking if she was gonna give him some pussy." When the Dixmoor cases went to trial, a Cook County prosecutor described the boys' neighborhood in classic "superpredator" terms as a "world where so-called friends would turn into a pack of jackals hunting down their prey and then when they were done with it killing it for sport."

Other false confessions also painted juveniles as depraved. In April 1997, 14-year-old Don Olmetti confessed to shooting to death a Chicago school teacher in the school's parking lot -- a confession later proven false when evidence showed that Olmetti was sitting in class at the time of the crime. At Olmetti's bond hearing, a Cook County prosecutor, pointing to Olmetti's confession, urged the court to deny him bond, arguing that Olmetti lacked remorse because he "took the bus home afterward to take a nap and watch cartoons."

This same cartoon-watching callousness appeared again a year or so later in August 1998 in perhaps Chicago's most infamous juvenile false confession case. In that case, a Chicago detective obtained a confession from a 7-year-old boy in which implicated himself and his 8-year-old friend in the murder and sexual assault of 11-year-old Ryan Harris. According to the detective, the boy said that after killing her, he "rode his bike home and watched cartoons."

None of these demonizing details were true. Neither of the crimes at issue in the Englewood and Dixmoor cases were gang-related. They weren't even committed by teenagers. In both cases, DNA evidence proved that the rape-murders were committed by single adult males with lengthy criminal histories, including rapes and other crimes of violence. DNA evidence also proved that Ryan Harris had been raped and murdered by an adult serial sexual predator.

The dialogue in these confessions also had to have been scripted. The chances are infinitesimal that several boys would use the same "change the bitch" language or invent the nickname "The Undertaker" without help from their interrogators. The presence of the "watching cartoons" language in two different confessions conducted by different officers in different cases suggests an even scarier scenario -- that parts of these same scripts were being passed around and reused from case to case.

The good news is that Illinois has taken steps to fix the problem of confession contamination. Laws requiring the electronic recording of the entire interrogation of all homicides and other serious felonies will now expose contamination if it exists and allow judges and jurors to see what, if any, details were fed to unknowing suspects.

Recording will also replace Cook County's practice of having police and prosecutors write out confessions and then give them to suspects to sign or their practice of rehearsing the details of these confessions with suspects before bringing in a court-reporter or videographer to record them.

Finally, recording should also prevent Cook County law enforcement officers from engaging in the kind of creative fiction writing that permeates the juvenile false confessions and has led to the wrongful arrests and convictions of so many innocent young black men.

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