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Last night's 60 Minutes included a story about the disturbing number of false confessions in Chicago.  Apparently the Chicago Police Department has a bad habit of browbeating people into confessing to crimes that they didn't commit.  So bad, in fact, that the Justice Department is investigating.

60 Minutes' Byron Pitts interviewed two sets of teenagers who were ensnared in two of the more infamous cases of false confessions.  In 1991, James Harden, Robert Taylor and Jonathan Barr were convicted of raping and murdering a classmate, Cateressa Matthews.  In 1994, Terrill Swift, Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, and Harold Richardson were convicted of raping and murdering a prostitute, Nina Glover.  In both cases, the defendants confessed to the crime and were sentenced to decades in prison.  However, in both cases, they were exonerated and freed when DNA evidence proved they were innocent.  Watch the video here:

The interrogation scenes make it sound like the interrogators forgot what Miranda is.  The defendants were never granted access to counsel, and were told falsely that if they confessed, they could go home.  But apparently the police were so desperate to put them away that when they typed up the confessions that the defendants were forced to sign, they wrote different accounts of the crimes.  While the DNA evidence would have been enough by itself to free them, the botched confessions sealed it.

The prosecutor who put Harden, Taylor and Barr in prison, Bob Milan, feels sick at heart about what happened, and has an idea why someone could push for a false confession--police can get locked in on a single suspect, and they accept anything that confirms that person is the perp no matter how off it may be.

Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez has set up a task force to examine suspect confessions.  Yet, she still thinks the confessions in the Glover and Matthews cases are still legitimate even though there was no DNA linking them to the crime and the confessions have been completely discredited.

CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen was also stunned that someone would confess to a crime they didn't commit.  He talked with Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter and investigative journalist Maurice Possley, the guy whose reporting is largely responsible for the death penalty moratorium in Illinois.  Possley thinks that there are situations where suspects--especially teenagers--feel compelled to admit to things they normally wouldn't admit to doing.

"Put a kid in a locked room for 10-20 hours and they want their mama and will say just about anything to get out of there," Possley says. "But instead of going home, they go straight to jail."

Possley now works with the National Registry of Exonerations, which serves as a national repository for information about exonerations like the ones Byron highlighted on 60 Minutes. Possley has seen and reported on a lot of these sorts of cases, both in Chicago and elsewhere around the country. "People confess to crimes they don't commit because they fear the death penalty, because they are mentally ill or they are intellectually handicapped," Possley told me. "They confess because police are smarter and forceful and believe they are extracting the truth, even if the facts belie the confession."

Possley also revealed at least one case where police out-and-out lied to a fourteen-year-old kid by telling him he was signing a witness statement that turned out to be a confession.

Cohen also points out that this is a big reason why SCOTUS banned capital punishment for juveniles.  He referred to Anthony Kennedy's opinion in the Roper case, which pointed out juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences than adults, and therefore have a "diminished culpability" that precludes the death penalty.  Cohen argues--rightly--that if that's the case, the same standard should hold when young offenders sign confessions.

When I heard that the Scott sisters were in jail in part because of the testimony of a 14-year-old boy who was threatened with being raped in prison unless he confessed and wasn't even allowed to read the affidavit before signing it, I thought this was an anomaly.  If what's happening in Chicago is any indication, though, sadly it isn't.

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