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David Protess

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When Juveniles Confess to Murders They Didn't Commit

Posted: 11/18/11 11:15 AM ET

It was Chicago's feel-good story of the week. A Cook County judge on Wednesday overturned the convictions of four men who, as teenagers in 1995, falsely confessed to the rape and murder of a 30-year-old woman. The men were cleared by DNA evidence that linked a career criminal to the crime.

Vincent Thames and Terrill Swift were beaming as they exited the revolving doors of the criminal courts building at 26th and Cal. The other two, Harold Richardson and Michael Saunders, will soon be free on bond. Now the Englewood Four, as they have been dubbed, await a decision by prosecutors whether to re-try them.

Meanwhile, troubling questions linger. How did the four confess to crimes they did not commit? Why did it take so long to conduct DNA testing? And, underlying it all, why has Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez persistently fought justice for the four?

***

On November 7, 1994, a sanitation worker found the badly beaten body of an African American woman in a dumpster behind a liquor store in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The woman was identified as Nina Glover, a prostitute.

Police interviewed a resident of the neighborhood, Johnny Douglas, at the scene. But they let him go when he denied knowing Glover.

Four months later, acting on a tip, police picked up four African American teenagers for questioning. According to Det. James Cassidy, the teenagers voluntarily confessed, saying they took turns raping Glover before murdering her.

Primitive DNA tests excluded the teenagers as the source of semen recovered from Glover, and all four claimed their confessions had been coerced. But they were convicted based on detailed signed statements about their involvement, and dispatched to prison for terms ranging from 30 to 40 years.

In 2010, two of the prisoners requested advanced "STR" DNA testing along with a database search of the genetic profiles of criminals. Cook County prosecutors opposed the tests, contending that the trial court judgments were final. But a judge ordered them, and the stunning results were revealed last May.

Not only were the four teenagers ruled out, but the DNA matched a person that cops had interviewed at the crime scene -- Johnny Douglas. A man with a history of preying on prostitutes, Douglas' rap sheet was impressive: 38 convictions, including for murder and sexual assault. He was shot to death in 2008.

Exoneration was at hand for the Englewood Four -- or so it seemed.

***

As family members of the prisoners readied to welcome them home, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez set in motion a distinctly different course. She announced that she would vigorously fight their release.

Alvarez's novel theory of the crime: Douglas had unprotected sex with Glover, left her unharmed, and she was later raped and murdered by the four teenagers. "He [Douglas] didn't kill every other prostitute he was with," Alvarez told the New York Times. "DNA evidence in and of itself is not always the 'silver bullet' that it is sometimes perceived to be," she declared.

The county's chief law enforcement officer believed Det. Cassidy's version of the confessions. Otherwise, how could the teenagers have provided so many details about the crime?

Turns out Det. Cassidy has a rap sheet of his own. In 1994, the year before the Englewood Four case, the detective took a detailed confession from an 11-year-old African American male who purportedly murdered an elderly Caucasian woman on Chicago's Southwest Side. A federal judge concluded the confession had been coerced, tossed out the conviction, and ordered the child's record expunged.

In 1998, Cassidy was back, this time with another high-profile confession. Two African-American males -- ages seven and eight -- admitted killing 11-year-old Ryan Harris and dumping her body in a backyard, Cassidy claimed. The elaborate confessions created a national furor over pre-adolescent crime -- until the authorities found semen in Harris' panties. They sheepishly dropped the charges and eventually secured a confession from an adult male (though his actual guilt has been disputed.)

Cassidy reportedly is no longer active on the force, having been reassigned to the Medical Examiner's office. (One wonders if his new job description includes obtaining confessions from the recently departed.)

Point is, false confessions happen all the time. Out of the 76 wrongful convictions in Cook County since the advent of DNA testing, 25 were based on suspects admitting to crimes they did not commit, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

False confessions are particularly common in cases involving juveniles. Just two weeks ago, the convictions of five suburban Chicago youths were upended in a case involving the 1991 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. They, too, had confessed to the crime and were exonerated by DNA. And, in the infamous Central Park jogger case in 1989, four of the five teenagers who confessed to the rape were later exonerated when DNA evidence confirmed another man's involvement.

What is distinctive about the Englewood Four case, and deeply troubling, is that State's Attorney Alvarez will not acknowledge the mistake. She is an exception. In a study of 194 DNA exonerations, prosecutors refused to join defense lawyers in dismissing convictions in only four percent of cases where DNA evidence implicated an alternative suspect.

Why is Alvarez a four-percenter? As a career prosecutor, perhaps she is blindly loyal to her troops, realizing that the blame for false confessions (unlike mistaken eyewitness testimony) falls entirely on law enforcement. Perhaps she is concerned about the large civil rights judgments that will inevitably follow if she throws Cassidy and his fellow cops under the bus.

But even if we take Alvarez at her word on this subject -- "As a prosecutor, I have a duty to the victims in this case" -- then what is her duty to the Englewood Four? Haven't they been victimized for seventeen years? Re-trying these young men, an option Alvarez is considering, would compound the injustice and waste taxpayer's dollars.

The system made a tragic mistake. It's time for Alvarez to confess it.