The Wrongful Conviction I’ll Never Forget
When Police Corralled a 10-year-old Boy Into Falsely Confessing to Murder
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
I was sitting in a tiny courtroom listening to the testimony and thinking to myself, “This kid didn’t do it. There’s no way he could have done it.”
But on that day back in 1994, I reported the verdict: A 10-year-old Chicago boy had been convicted of killing his neighbor, an 84-year-old woman. The judge really had no other choice—after all, the boy had confessed to the crime.
But I distinctly remember thinking, as I scribbled down testimony in my reporters’ notebook during the two-day trial, “It just doesn’t add up.” None of the boy’s fingerprints were found inside the home, and a bloody palm and shoe print didn’t match his own. The boy weighed 88 pounds and it seemed inconceivable that he had dragged the 173-pound victim from her kitchen to her bathroom, ripped a telephone cord out of the wall, wound it around her arms, neck, hands and ankles, beat her with her cane, broke it into pieces, slashed her throat, and then left her to die hanging over a toilet.
It seemed, to me, almost incomprehensible that he then disposed of his own bloody clothes in a dumpster and, unlike many violent murderers, managed to not tell a soul about the crime–until, of course, his emotional confession to police upon his arrest nearly a year later.
Watching him in court, fidgeting while looking nervously at his parents, this pint-sized child–who had never had any prior run-ins with the law–did not appear to be a diabolical criminal mastermind.
The supposed reason for this savagery? Burglary—theft of the victim’s gold watch and diamond ring. The kid didn’t have them at the time of his arrest, though. They were never found and there was no evidence that the boy had sold them or come into any money in the previous year.
I remember interviewing neighbors outside the victim’s home. “What’s the world coming to?” was essentially the response from many of the long-entrenched residents. There were racial overtones. The boy was black, the woman was white. The neighborhood had changed in recent years and the “thugs” and “gangs” were wreaking havoc.
And again, the cops said the kid admitted the whole horrific episode during a two-hour interrogation. It seemed as if the circuit court judge really didn’t have much choice in the matter: Guilty.
Still, I filed the story that night with doubts.
Jump ahead eight years, to 2002, and a federal judge throws out the conviction of this boy, now a 19-year-old young man. This judge ruled that the only actual evidence against the boy was the boy’s confession, that it had been improperly obtained — coerced — and that police and prosecutors had failed to protect the boy’s rights at the time.
The federal judge also pointed out the inconsistencies between the actual evidence and the boy’s confession. The boy was on record saying he tied the lady up with rope from a hanging plant, not the telephone cord found wrapped around her neck. Yet there was no rope, and no hanging plants in the victim’s home.
The boy had been questioned in a closed interrogation room with no parent, guardian, lawyer, or anyone at his side. Police told his trusting mother that he was being interviewed as a witness, not a suspect, so it was unnecessary for her to come to the station with him. The boy was at the mercy of the detectives to drive him home, meaning he had no way of leaving the police station even if he felt he could leave.
But he was never told he was free to go at any time, or that he was not under arrest. And he didn’t ask.
Because he was 10-years-old.
At a hearing in January 2000, the boy (then 17) claimed he confessed only because the detective interrogating him screamed and swore at him, saying, “I know you did it. I know you killed her!” He testified the cop then told him, “God will forgive you if you confess.”
The boy went on to say, “He was hollering,`Would you just tell us the truth?’ I didn’t know how much trouble I could get into, so I said I did it.”
At the time of the boy’s 1994 trial, the boy took the stand and said something similar, that he lied to cops about committing the crime–out of fear. I remember thinking, “Who would confess to a crime he didn’t commit? Why would anyone in his right mind ever do that, regardless of his age?”
But as I, and many others, have since learned over the years, coerced confessions are common in wrongful convictions cases. Manipulative detectives wear their suspects down during hours of antagonistic questioning. They tell the naïve and ignorant that they can go home, if they “just sign the papers.”
In 2000, the boy testified that the detective had pounded his fists on a table during the 1994 interrogation, telling him his fingerprints were on the murder weapon! But then the cop said that if he admitted to the crime, he could go home in time for his brother’s birthday party. The lure of cake led a 10-year-old to a confession.
Turns out that the police detective who conducted the interrogation of this 10-year-old had a history of obtaining similar confessions from innocent people. In several cases, it was later revealed, the cop claimed that suspects had just “spontaneously” confessed to him.
Wrongful convictions often occur when cops feel the heat from communities. When the boy was charged, nearly a year had passed since the 1993 murder of that 84-year-old woman and the killer was still running loose. Police wanted an arrest and a conviction to calm neighborhood fears when, lo and behold, into their purview stepped this malleable 10-year-old boy. Their eyebrows first rose when the boy answered their questions—honestly, as children are prone to do–while he stood in his yard by the fence. He told the detectives he didn’t like the old neighbor lady, that she would yell at him and call him the n-word.
A-ha! They had motive.
Sometimes, the law enforcement mindset is that getting a collar on somebody, anybody, is far better than getting nobody—regardless of the truth.
I’ve covered a lot of stories in the last quarter century but this one has always stayed with me, nagged at my conscience. When the conviction was thrown out, the boy, known to the public only as “A.M.” (his initials) due to his status as a juvenile, was described by his attorney as “ecstatic.” I tried for several years to get an interview with him, but the attorney said the young man simply wasn’t interested—that he just wanted to put it all behind him.
With the advent of DNA testing, I’ve covered many more wrongful conviction cases, and interviewed men and women alike who were either cleared and exonerated as a result, or were clamoring for their turn, insisting on their innocence from behind bars. Desperate for a chance at justice themselves.
As of September 2015, the National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 1,650 men and women who’ve been cleared of wrongful convictions in the last 25 years. 47 percent were black and 40 percent had been incarcerated for at least ten years before their exonerations. Leaders of the Registry, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the most comprehensive collection of exonerations in the U.S., believe the list represents just a sliver of the true number of those falsely accused and still imprisoned.
In fact, some legal experts estimate as many as one out of every ten currently imprisoned men and women in the U.S. is innocent. 10 percent!
If true, that’s astounding. And despicable.
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A final footnote: Because eight long years passed between the time that 10-year-old was wrongfully convicted and then exonerated, the true killer of the elderly Chicago woman was never found. Today, more than two decades since her death, the crime remains unsolved.
Wrongful convictions = No justice. In so many troubling ways.
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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