When Chicago police took Terrill Swift to a police station on the city’s South Side in March of 1995, he was just 17 years old.
“They cuffed me to the chair and they started asking me questions about this rape and murder. And I’m like ‘Whoa, what? Excuse me?’ ” Swift remembers.
Swift and three other black teenagers, a group that would later be dubbed the Englewood Four, were questioned for hours. Swift remembers the police telling him over and over: “You’re gonna die in jail. You’re never going home.”
“I’m sitting there like, I’m ‘how am I gonna die in jail? I don’t even know what’s going on,’ ” Swift said. “I’ve never been in jail, I don’t know how jail works. You’re telling me I’m never going to see my family again. I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know!”
After hours of questioning, and as Swift sat with his life flashing before him, an officer walked in and told him even though he knew that Swift wasn’t guilty, the other co-defendants said Swift did it.
The officer told Swift if he would just play along and cooperate, it would get smoothed out and Swift could go home.
Ultimately all four teenagers confessed to a brutal rape and murder they did not commit. DNA evidence exonerated them almost 20 years later.
“You know, people [ask] ‘How can someone sign a confession for a crime they didn’t do?’ And I’m like ‘do you know the amount of pressure that you’re under?’ I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” Swift said.
Last week, the Illinois legislature passed a bill banning police from lying to juveniles during criminal interrogations. Experts said the change will help prevent false confessions and wrongful convictions, like the convictions of the Englewood Four.
Ill. Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign the bill into law soon. When he does, Illinois will become the first state to prohibit deception during interrogations of people younger than 18.
The restriction limits conduct that the U.S. Supreme Court has already approved for officers. A 1969 ruling said officers lying to suspects was not enough to invalidate a confession.
Under the Illinois bill, if police lie to a young person about the facts of a case, or if they lie about the consequences of confessing to a crime, the juvenile’s confession will be thrown out.
Experts said the legislation is a meaningful step toward preventing wrongful confessions. And said the law enforcement community nationally has already moved away from using deception when interrogating young people.
The legislation has the support of law enforcement groups in the state like the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association..
And it was supported by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
“I am not soft on crime, but I’m harder on reaching the truth,” said Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
Durkin, a former Cook County prosecutor said that he believes under the bill juveniles will still be held accountable when they commit crimes. But now they’ll be less likely to be “manipulated” into false confessions.
Laura Nirider, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, said young people are especially susceptible to lies and manipulation in the high-pressure setting of an interrogation. She said people younger than 18 are two- to three-times more likely than adults to confess to crimes they did not commit.
“What we’ve come to understand … is that police lies about the evidence, and police lies about the consequences of confessing … can cause innocent people to believe it’s actually in their interest to falsely confess,” Nirider said.
That’s exactly what happened to Terrill Swift when police lied about the evidence and convinced him that he’d go home to his mom and dad if he’d just confess tothe rape and murder of Nina Glover.
“I mean 17, you think you’re grown but you’re not. And you also think the police are going to help you … especially when you didn’t do anything,” Swift said. “So it was like ‘OK, yeah, what do you need me to do? Yeah, I’ll help.’ And helping led to me being convicted and losing 15 and a half years of my life.”
It also ended up costing taxpayers more than $60 million in legal payouts.
Illinois State Rep. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, says it’s a pattern that keeps repeating in Illinois.
“The cost of settlements that stem from wrongful convictions are crazy. I mean, our state is paying millions and millions of dollars,” Slaughter said.
On top of that, the DNA evidence that exonerated Swift and his co-defendants, it actually pointed to another man. A serial rapist. Evidence suggests he went on to rape and kill again.
“Sometimes people forget, when you have incarcerated the wrong individual, the actual offender is still out in the community,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter is hoping the bill he helped craft in Illinois will serve as a model for legislatures across the country.
There are already similar bills being considered by state lawmakers in New York and Oregon.