Both Democrats vying to become Cook County’s next top prosecutor say they will help strengthen Illinois requirements for children to get an attorney during police interrogations.
The pledge comes in response to video footage showing a detective in suburban Lake County steering a 15-year-old to falsely confess to a shooting. The video, obtained by WBEZ through an open-records lawsuit against the city of Waukegan, prompted a state senator to draft a bill that would raise the age at which a child must have an attorney present to be questioned in police custody. Now Clayton Harris III and Eileen O’Neill Burke, facing off in a March primary for Cook County state’s attorney, are vowing to help push the legislation into law.
The Waukegan case “highlights the extreme danger” of allowing cops to question children without “someone there who’s looking out for their best interest the entire time,” Harris, a public policy professor, told WBEZ.
And Harris, a former political aide and former Cook County assistant state’s attorney, said the child’s advocate during an interrogation must be a lawyer: “I don’t think that a parent should be able to waive a child’s right to an attorney, especially if they’re not in the room with a child. The parent might not be as well-versed in the law.”
“I’m looking forward to supporting this legislation,” Harris said.
O’Neill Burke, a retired Illinois Appellate Court judge, defense lawyer and former Cook County assistant state’s attorney, said in a statement emailed by her campaign that she “strongly” believes juveniles deserve “every protection within our court system.”
“I look forward to working with lawmakers and other stakeholders to ensure funding and enforcement are provided in this important initiative as it continues to take shape,” O’Neill Burke said.
O’Neill Burke and Harris are both seeking to replace State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who announced this year she would not run for a third four-year term. The primary is March 19. The general election is Nov. 5.
The Waukegan video shows a 43-minute interrogation in which the 15-year-old declined an attorney before making self-incriminating statements about the shooting, which injured a dollar-store clerk last year. The police charged the teen 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 case led state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, to draft a measure based on a 2021 bill that would have required an attorney for any child under 18 throughout a custodial interrogation about any offense.
That bill would have tightened a 2017 law that requires a lawyer during interrogations of children but only under age 15 and only after a murder or sexual offenses.
At least 30 Illinoisans between ages 15 and 17 have confessed to serious crimes before their convictions were overturned based on new evidence, according to National Registry of Exonerations data analyzed by WBEZ. That number doesn’t include false confessions that have led to wrongful arrests without convictions, such as the Waukegan case.
The Waukegan video caught the attention of Gov. JB Pritzker’s office, which says Pritzker will work on the legislation and the funding for local jurisdictions to provide the attorneys.
“Governor Pritzker has worked tirelessly to adopt a holistic, fair approach to a more just and equitable criminal justice system in Illinois,” a Pritzker spokesperson wrote to WBEZ. “The administration is committed to building on that approach through productive discussions with Senator Peters and criminal justice reform advocates.”
But the spokesperson said “funding for this proposal requires approval from the General Assembly and will need to be worked out through the budget negotiation process.”
Peters said the plan is to introduce the bill when the legislature reconvenes in January but he declined to provide a copy, saying specifics were not finalized.
Law enforcement groups including the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police have voiced opposition to requiring a lawyer for suspects under 18 throughout an interrogation, saying it would discourage teens from talking to police and make it too hard to solve crimes.
Attorney Andrew Charles Kopinski, a Libertarian who’ll face the Democratic primary’s winner, wrote he would support requiring legal counsel for juveniles who are “being asked about a shooting or something that can result in institutionalization.”
But Kopinski said it’s “more debatable whether a lawyer needs to be present if someone is being questioned about something less serious like egging and TPing a house during homecoming weekend.”
Attorney and former Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti, the race’s lone Republican, did not answer questions about the issue.