The mother of a Waukegan teenager who was charged a year ago with a shooting he did not commit is suing that northern suburb and three of its police officers, blaming them for the child’s false confession.
Police arrested the teen, Martell Williams, at his school and drove the 15-year-old freshman to a police station, where they interrogated him until he confessed to the shooting, which injured a dollar-store clerk. Charged with aggravated battery, he spent two nights in juvenile detention and was not released until his family proved he was playing a high school basketball game in another suburb when the shooting took place.
“It has just been a continuous pattern by this city,” said attorney Kevin O’Connor, who filed the suit Wednesday in federal court for the boy’s mother, Shanika Williams. “They are extracting false confessions and they’re letting people who commit murders or attempted murders go free.”
In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Waukegan Mayor Ann B. Taylor emailed a statement saying the city “cannot and will not be commenting” on the suit’s allegations because of the confidentiality of juvenile law enforcement records in Illinois.
The lawsuit’s three officer defendants did not return messages seeking comment.
The shooting took place Feb. 4, 2022, at a Dollar General in Waukegan. The store clerk was shot in the face. Police released surveillance photos showing the suspect in a balaclava ski mask.
The lawsuit says Detective Sean Aines, one of the defendants, conducted photo lineups with the shooting victim and another store employee but, the suit adds, Martell was “not definitively identified as the shooter.”
Cops came for Martell at Waukegan High School’s Brookside campus on Feb. 16. Officer Brian Falotico, a defendant assigned to the school on a daily basis, pulled the teen from a class, according to the suit.
A school district policy on student arrests requires the school’s principal or a designee to “promptly attempt to notify the parent(s) by telephone.” But the school failed to reach Martell’s mother, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also targets the Waukegan Board of Education, a member of that board, and a co-principal of the high school campus where police arrested Martell.
A school district spokesperson said the district did not hire the co-principal until July, months after Martell’s arrest. The spokesperson said school officials were still reviewing the lawsuit and had no other comment.
After pulling Martel from class, cops including Detective Joshua Amman, another defendant, drove Martell to a police station in handcuffs, according to the suit. On the way, Amman allegedly questioned the teen without informing him of his rights to remain silent and to talk to an attorney before being questioned.
Alleged lies in violation of state law
At the station, officers interrogated the 15-year-old without the presence of his mother or an attorney, the suit said. Once the mother was contacted, police allegedly refused to let her speak with Martell by phone.
Amman was assigned to advocate for the child during the interrogation but, according to the lawsuit, the detective helped extract the false confession, at one point providing Martell a map so the teen could falsely identify where the gun was ditched.
The suit adds that Amman failed to intervene as Aines, the other detective, lied to Martell. The mistruths, according to the suit, included telling the teen the police “possessed a wealth of evidence connecting [him] to the shooting.”
Illinois bars police from deceiving minors during interrogations under a law that took effect Jan. 1, 2022, nearly seven weeks before Martell’s interrogation. The law renders evidence from those interrogations inadmissible at trial but does not hold the officers liable.
The lawsuit said Aines also used leading questions to confuse and manipulate Martell, who “nonetheless could not provide corroborating details.”
Knowing Martell had not eaten in hours, according to the suit, Aines “maliciously withheld food” from the teen and then offered a McDonald’s meal “to solicit a false confession.”
“The leading questions, lies and abuses — together with the extensive and intricate retelling of the shooting — resulted in [Martell] falsely confessing,” the lawsuit said.
While Martell was in custody, according to the family’s attorney, Aines heard from a police officer who said he recognized the shooter in the surveillance images — and it was not Martell.
One of the store clerks, the lawsuit added, also identified a different person as the shooter.
Waukegan interrogation techniques
The lawsuit pointed to a long history of Waukegan officers extracting false confessions, saying the city’s cops “routinely coerce individuals against their will to implicate themselves in crimes that they [have] not committed.”
The suit said that practice targets “people of color, especially minors and individuals suffering from mental, physical and psychological disabilities.”
O’Connor said the Waukegan Police Department has stuck with discredited interrogation techniques pioneered in the 1950s by John E. Reid, a polygraph expert and former Chicago street cop who advised putting suspects under psychological pressure before offering help in exchange for a confession.
The city says Martell’s false confession led to reforms. The city now bars officers from interrogating children unless a parent, guardian or attorney is present, and no longer arrests children at school unless the alleged crime took place there.
But Waukegan officials have provided little information about their handling of the cops who extracted Martell’s confession.
Mayor Taylor has not answered whether any officers were disciplined. Neither has Police Chief Keith Zupec, whose brother-in-law Scott Thomas oversees the detectives as commander of the department’s criminal investigations division.
Taylor’s administration last March hired Jensen Hughes, a Baltimore-based security consulting firm, to examine how the police obtained the confession.
In June, the firm delivered a report on best practices regarding juvenile interrogations and the city’s policies. That report, released publicly after a WBEZ inquiry, gave Waukegan high marks.
But the city withheld a separate Jensen Hughes report that examined Martell’s arrest and interrogation, citing the child’s privacy under Illinois law.
Last month, WBEZ’s parent organization Chicago Public Media sued in Lake County Circuit Court for that report and other city records in the case.
This report was updated to reflect a statement on Monday from the city of Waukegan.