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Waukegan Teen Counsel

A screenshot from an interrogation video obtained by WBEZ shows a 15-year-old in a Waukegan police station — moments before detectives of that north suburb enter the room to interrogate him. The teen implicated himself in the Feb. 4, 2022, shooting of a Dollar General clerk. After the teen’s basketball team proved an alibi, prosecutors dropped charges. The video is spurring proposed changes to an Illinois law on juvenile interrogations.

A planned Illinois bill would require lawyers for kids in police interrogations

In light of video footage that shows a suburban Chicago police officer steering a 15-year-old to confess to a shooting he did not commit, some Illinois lawmakers are pledging to back planned legislation requiring a lawyer for any child being interrogated by police.

The video, released as a result of a WBEZ open-records lawsuit against the city of Waukegan, shows a 43-minute interrogation in which the teen declined an attorney before making self-incriminating statements about the shooting, which injured a dollar-store clerk last year. The police charged the 15-year-old with attempted murder and sent him to jail. He was held until his basketball team proved he was in another town during the shooting.

“The current way we are doing things has failed so much and too often,” said state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, pointing to a long history of false confessions in Waukegan and other parts of the state. “Those failed practices include making Illinois a wrongful conviction capital.”

But law enforcement groups voiced opposition to requiring a lawyer for suspects under 18 throughout an interrogation, as the planned bill would do.

“All individuals are entitled to counsel at their request but requiring it for all [juveniles] would not be something we would be supportive of,” Illinois Sheriffs’ Association executive director Jim Kaitschuk wrote to WBEZ. “We have to contact parents already and they obviously have that choice.”

“Coercion” on video

WBEZ is not naming the teen due to his age but has posted clips of the interrogation and a full transcript online.

The video begins with the 15-year-old shivering, both arms inside his T-shirt. It’s lunchtime but there’s no food. He tells the lead detective, Sean Aines, he wants to go home.

Aines eventually reads him his Miranda rights, beginning with his right to remain silent, but tells the teen, “I’ll kind of explain a little bit as I go along.”

The detective’s explanations undercut the Miranda warnings, including one telling the suspect about his right to an attorney.

“Just keep in mind, I’m asking you, Do you want to have a lawyer right here in this room right now?” Aines says during the interrogation. “Realistically, a lawyer coming here within the next 5 to 10 minutes — that’s not going to happen. So, if you want to have a lawyer, that’s cool. But again, this conversation is going to end for right now, OK?”

Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who reviewed the video for WBEZ, said the implication was that “getting a lawyer is going to lengthen this process, something that [the teen] wants to avoid.”

“You don’t need a lot of coercion to get a kid to falsely confess,” Drizin said.

The detective, proceeding without a lawyer for the 15-year-old, tells him that some shooting suspects get to go home after confessing. Those include suspects who shot in self-defense, he says.

Throughout the interrogation, Aines inflates the evidence against the teen, letting him know “his goose was cooked and that … assertions of innocence would be futile,” Drizin said.

Aines also feeds the teen key facts about the shooting — instead of seeing if he can come up with them on his own.

Little by little, the 15-year-old implicates himself.

Data from the National Registry of Exonerations show that at least 30 Illinoisans between ages 15 and 17 have confessed to serious crimes, have been convicted, then have been officially cleared based on new evidence.

That number doesn’t include false confessions that have led to wrongful arrests without convictions — such as the Waukegan teen’s case.

Elizabeth Clarke, an attorney who founded the Evanston-based nonprofit Juvenile Justice Initiative, said children under interrogation need a lawyer to understand their constitutional rights and the consequences of any statement they might make.

“Children do not have agency,” Clarke said. “Under 18, they’re not even allowed to go on a field trip from school without parental permission.”

Looming legislative battle

Now, Clarke said, the video of the 15-year-old’s false confession — the footage that WBEZ obtained — is spurring legislative action to mandate an attorney for anyone younger than 18 throughout a police interrogation.

If the effort succeeds, it would update an Illinois law that took effect in 2017 and requires a lawyer throughout the interrogation of a child under 15 who is suspected of murder or sexual assault.

When that 2017 law was being debated, juvenile advocates including Clarke’s group and the ACLU of Illinois pushed for an older age but met opposition from law enforcement groups.

That opposition remains.

John Millner, a former state senator who lobbies for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said raising the age would make it too hard to solve crimes.

“Eighteen and under, we feel that we don’t want an attorney involved because the attorneys will not let the suspect talk,” Millner said.

If a child is allowed to speak with police, Millner said, the officers can clear the child’s name right away — if, for example, there is an alibi for when the crime occurred.

“We’ll follow up on that and say, ‘OK, you know, you’re making sense here.’ We’ll get that taken care of and let the [juvenile] go,” said Millner, a former chief of police of west suburban Elmhurst. “This happens, basically, every day in police departments.”

But Clarke said the interrogation video from Waukegan shows that a lack of a lawyer in the room not only makes a false confession more likely, it can make solving the crime harder.

“Either the child didn’t have the presence of mind to talk about his alibi or he talked about it and the police immediately discounted it,” Clarke said. “If a lawyer had been there, the lawyer could have separately called the parent, ‘This is where the kid was. You got the wrong kid.’ ”

With the case fresh in their minds, Clarke said she expects lawmakers to introduce a bill requiring an attorney for all kids under 18 this coming winter.

State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, said in an email that she is “interested in sponsoring.”

Peters, the senator, texted that he is interested too.

“Wrongful convictions or coercive convictions aren’t doing anything for anyone,” Peters wrote. “We need to make changes and restore the public’s trust.”

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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