July 25, 2021

Scott Reeder: Cops shouldn’t lie to get confessions

Imagine living in a place where police can detain children and lie to them to obtain confessions for crimes they did not commit.

North Korea? China? Cuba?

Try the United States of America.

“Right now, it is legal in all 50 states to lie to a juvenile to obtain a confession. And Illinois has a reputation as the false confession capital of the nation,” said John Hanlon, executive director of the Springfield-based Illinois Innocence Project.

Last month, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting police from using deceptive methods during interrogations of juveniles. The measure now sits on Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk and, if signed, will make Illinois the first state to prohibit the practice.

It’s a step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough. Police officers shouldn’t be allowed to lie to anyone during interrogations.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Frazier v. Cupp that police officers can lie to obtain confessions. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other case where the high court has endorsed the notion that it’s OK for government to lie to its citizens.

And in this case, the justices were as flat-out wrong as earlier courts were in Plessy v. Ferguson, where they ruled in favor of racial segregation, or in Korematsu v. United States, in which they ruled that Japanese Americans could be placed in internment camps during World War II.

The court was wrong in these cases, and it is equally wrong in Frazier v. Cupp. It should never be acceptable for government to lie to its own citizens.

During the decades I’ve covered police departments and courts, I can tell you interrogation rooms are rife with abuse.

“Police officers will go up to someone and say things that aren’t true, like ‘Your friend in the other room has given you up’ or ‘Sign this confession and you’ll get to go home’ or ‘We found your fingerprints at the crime scene,’ ” Hanlon said.

In 2015, the IIP successfully exonerated Christopher Abernathy after he served 30 years in prison. After more than 40 hours of interrogation, the 18-year-old with learning disabilities falsely confessed to a murder. Officers told him that if he confessed he could go home to his mother. Instead, he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After 30 years of incarceration, IIP obtained DNA testing that exonerated and freed him.

“In Illinois, there have been 100 wrongful convictions predicated on false confessions – 31 involving juveniles. Illinois has taken a critical step in changing the trajectory of false confessions and subsequent wrongful convictions resulting from these types of interrogation tactics,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, IIP legal director.

Juveniles are particularly vulnerable during interrogations because their minds are not yet fully developed and they are more easily susceptible to the power of suggestion, said Emily Haney-Caron, an assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Others view the Legislature’s action as far too tepid.

“The Illinois Legislature took a nice first step, but it really doesn’t go far enough. Police shouldn’t be allowed to lie to anyone – whether they are an adult or a juvenile,” said Saul Kassin, a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay.

Kassin said it is time for the Supreme Court to revisit the Frasier v. Cupp decision.

“Look how much we have learned about psychology in the last 50 years,” he said. “Most people come into these interrogations unaware that the police can lie to them. People can be psychologically manipulated into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit – particularly when they are lied to. It confuses their reality. The Supreme Court decision predates the Innocence Project movement. We know now that thousands of people have been wrongly convicted – many through false confessions.”

While the Illinois legislation does not go far enough – it is momentous nonetheless. Illinois has gone further than any other state in restricting when police officers can lie to those they have sworn to serve.

Let us hope this is just a beginning. It should never be acceptable for officers to lie to get a confession.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. His email is Scottreeder1965@gmail.com.