Terrill Swift was 17 when Chicago police told him he would die in prison. It was March of 1995, he was handcuffed and accused of participating in a rape and murder on the city’s south side.
Recounting the experience in an interview, Swift recalled officers telling him, falsely, that he had been named by others. And when he asked for a phone call, they responded: “You don’t need your mother because you’re going to die in prison for what you did.”
Swift spent more than 15 years in prison before being exonerated for the crimes in 2011, and later receiving a multimillion-dollar legal settlement from Cook County.
A decade later, Illinois became the first state to ban police from lying to kids during criminal interrogations, followed by Utah and Oregon. Now, California legislators are deciding whether to follow suit.
Assembly Bill 2644, authored by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D), would prohibit law enforcement officers from using threats, lying or other “psychologically manipulative” tactics against someone 17 or younger during a criminal interrogation. The legislation defines these tactics as relying on a presumption of guilt or deceit, such as when an officer says the evidence against a suspect is stronger than it is.
“The tragic link between deceptive interrogation techniques and wrongful convictions is particularly acute amongst young suspects who are the most vulnerable. Prohibiting the use of deceptive interrogation techniques on youth will strengthen the reliability of confessed evidence,” Holden wrote in a statement to The Imprint. “In a society where we teach young children that ‘honesty is the best policy’ — it is high time that this simple adage is expected not only of youth, but also of the officers who question our youth in the pursuit of justice.”
Law enforcement officials who have publicly opposed Holden’s legislation argue that it would put burdensome restrictions on officers’ interrogations. But proponents say the bill is needed to reduce the risk of locking up innocent children and young adults.
“We’re hoping to see more justice in these cases, that the wrong person is not convicted,” said Melissa O’Connell, a staff attorney and policy liaison at the Northern California Innocence Project.
O’Connell calls it a simple matter of justice. She points to data showing that false confessions have been a leading cause of wrongful convictions, and that young people are particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by authorities.
According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University, false confessions make up roughly a quarter of all wrongful convictions subsequently overturned based on DNA evidence. In a 2004 study, researchers Steven Drizin at Northwestern University School of Law, and Richard Leo at University of California, Irvine analyzed 125 cases of false confessions and found 63% were under the age of 25.
Among the most widely known case of this type is the Central Park Five. In 1989, a group of Black and Latino New York City teenagers were aggressively interrogated for hours without a lawyer, leading them to falsely confess to the violent rape of a female jogger. All five were convicted, and served between six and 14 years behind bars before a man confessed to the crime and they were exonerated.
Supreme Court decisions and a growing body of science have confirmed that parts of the brain are not fully developed until roughly age 25, leading to impulsive decisions and the failure to think through consequences. Under high-stress, high-stakes police questioning, young people are especially likely to blurt something out for momentary relief that could cause them long-term harm.
“Young people are putty in law enforcement hands,” said juvenile law expert Richard Braucher, a staff attorney with the Oakland-based First District Appellate Project, which represents low-income clients in criminal appeals cases. “You take a kid, put him in a room with police and that kid is going to be thinking, ‘how do I get out of this situation and be with my friends?’”
Some techniques involve officers repeating a litany of questions that assume guilt, followed by gentler probing that offers a more empathetic approach, techniques referred to as “maximization” and “minimization.” But that can also be “particularly devastating,” Braucher said. “Children and young people are impulsively primed to do whatever to get themselves out of that situation.”
In written opposition to Holden’s legislation, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association insists interrogation techniques that apply pressure to young suspects are long standing for a reason, and used only “when an investigator is reasonably certain of the suspect’s involvement in the issue under investigation.”
The California State Sheriffs’ Association has pushed back as well, writing that “this bill imposes rigid legislative mandates from one perspective as to how interrogations of persons aged 25 years or younger should be conducted.”
The sheriffs also criticized the “unclear” language of the bill.
“Does ‘making accusations’ include statements relaying facts that are known to be true?” the association asked in a letter to lawmakers considering AB 2644. “It will be difficult to determine what is allowable under this bill and as a result, it is likely that important information will go undiscovered or be withheld.”
The California Legislature has taken some steps to fortify the rights of young people under police interrogation. Laws passed in the last few years require minors 17 and younger to consult with an attorney before being able to waive their Miranda rights and speak with police.
But legally, officers can still lie to people during interrogations, as laid out in a 1969 Supreme Court decision.
Yet numerous studies show it’s not that effective a method.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which includes the FBI, CIA and Department of Defense, researches and deploys interrogation tactics. Its scientific conclusions about the best way to arrive at the truth involve asking open-ended questions in a non-coercive way, and building a rapport with the person being questioned.
Vern Pierson, El Dorado County’s district attorney, studied that research while his office reinvestigated the conviction of Ricky Davis. Davis spent more than 15 years in prison after his then-girlfriend implicated him in a 1985 murder. Two years ago, genetic evidence cleared Davis and led police to a different man, who the DA has recently charged.
“I was increasingly disturbed by how these manipulative and deceptive interviewing techniques pose an unreasonable risk of producing a false confession,” Pierson said in an interview.
He is now working with the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to create a new interrogation training program that will be launched next year.
The reforms envisioned under AB 2644 have some limitations. The legislation would not apply to interrogations where the officer “reasonably” believes the information is “necessary to protect life or property from an imminent threat.” And if adopted, it would not go into effect until 2024.
Earlier versions would have applied to those 25 and younger, but the bill was amended today in the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee. It now heads to the Senate floor for a vote, along with hundreds of other bills that have two weeks to pass before heading to the governor’s desk for approval.
The costs so far are minimal, in a state the size of California. When the bill applied to youth 25 and younger, the Department of Justice estimated its cost to be about $400,000.
Swift has a personal stake in the California bill passing. He lives in this state now, and wants to protect others from the tortuous years he spent in prison in Illinois. A resident of Temecula, he is also advocating for similar policies and legislation to be passed across the country.
In Swift’s 1990s case, he said the officers who interrogated him claimed that three other boys — who he didn’t even know at the time — had pointed the finger at him. Then, a different Chicago police officer entered the darkened room, approaching with a much kinder tone. He told the teenager that he believed he wasn’t a killer, and that all he needed to do in order to go home was sign a statement admitting to the crime. And so he did.
“I get asked this question a lot: ‘How do you sign a confession to a crime you did not commit?’” Swift told a reporter. “You have to be in that room and feel that pressure, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Ultimately, all four of the boys interrogated by police in the case confessed to murder and sexual assault. Their confessions were the only evidence held against them, according to the MacArthur Justice Center, which later represented Swift in his lawsuit against the state. A judge sentenced the teens to decades in prison, which is where they stayed until DNA evidence exonerated them all in 2011.
The idea that police lie to kids still doesn’t make much sense to Swift. “When you’re interrogating these kids and they’re telling you these stories,” he said of the officers involved, “doesn’t anything in your gut tell you it doesn’t feel right?”