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Curb False Confessions: Provide Suspects With Lawyers

by Derek Gilna

According to the nonprofit National Registry of Exonerations, Cook County, Illinois has a false confession rate three times higher than the national average. In November 2017, Cook County Prosecutor Kim Foxx dropped criminal cases against 15 men because of police misconduct, a development the Chicago Tribune referred to as the largest mass exoneration in county history. Even for Chicago, which is no stranger to official corruption and abuse scandals, it was extraordinary.

It is no coincidence that Chicago and Cook County payouts to wrongfully convicted individuals skyrocketed in 2017. In December 2017, Chicago paid out almost $31 million to four wrongfully convicted men and millions more throughout the year, but the human costs is even greater for the hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent individuals and their families victimized by a dysfunctional justice system.

Additionally, the public pays twice for police misconduct—once to the innocent victims wrongfully charged and incarcerated, and again because the real offender remaining free to victimize others.

Numerous studies have shown that innocent people confess to crimes for a variety of reasons. A report by the Police Accountability Task Force, which examined arrests in Chicago in 2014 and 2015, identified one primary reason for false confessions: Less than one percent of adults and juveniles placed under arrest had an attorney present during any part of the interrogation, which means that nearly all suspects are interrogated without the assistance of a lawyer.

According to Elizabeth Clarke, a former appellate defender in northern Illinois, the simple way to address the scourge of police extracting false confessions is to provide everyone with a lawyer throughout police interrogation. She concedes that having a lawyer present during police questioning would definitely add expense to the criminal justice system, but as she points out, $31 million pays for a lot of public defenders.

Clarke wrote in The Crime Report, “Last Spring, the Cook County Chief Judge issued an order appointing the public defender to be available to represent children and adults during police interrogations, so that persons arrested in Cook County would have access to a lawyer without charge.” Additionally, the Chicago Police Department agreed to comply with an Illinois statute that requires all police to post a sign with information on the right to legal assistance during interrogation. The Illinois General Assembly unanimously passed a law requiring attorneys to be present for all children under the age of 15 in felony cases and also videotaping of all interrogations in such cases.

Although many within the law enforcement community object to the notion of all suspects having the assistance of legal counsel during interrogation, police understand the importance of a lawyer’s presence. The fact that police labor agreements contain numerous protections for officers when they are suspects under interrogation, including the assistance of legal counsel, bears this out. Police know that having a lawyer during questioning is essential to protect the rights of the suspect and integrity of the process, so that’s why they demand it for themselves. They just don’t want non-police suspects to have that same protection.  

As noted by Clark, “The sad litany of exonerations based on false confessions illustrates that all arrestees need the protection of a lawyer. It is time for Illinois to follow the recommendations of the Police Accountability Task Force and ensure that all persons have a lawyer during interrogation, especially children.” 


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