A top suburban prosecutor blames Waukegan police for a boy’s false confession

A stock image of a police interview room
A stock image of a police interview room. An Illinois state law that took effect in January prohibits police from lying to minors during interrogations. 888bailbond / Flickr
A stock image of a police interview room
A stock image of a police interview room. An Illinois state law that took effect in January prohibits police from lying to minors during interrogations. 888bailbond / Flickr

A top suburban prosecutor blames Waukegan police for a boy’s false confession

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After authorities in a Chicago suburb held a teenager for two days and wrongly charged him in a shooting, the county’s top prosecutor says police officers misled the boy during his interrogation and that a detective assigned to be his advocate helped extract his confession, which turned out to be false.

Authorities released Martell Williams, 15, and dropped aggravated battery charges last week after his family provided evidence he was playing in a high school basketball game the evening of Feb. 4, when a clerk at a dollar store in Waukegan — a city 18 miles away — was shot in the face.

“One of the concerns we have after watching the [interrogation] video is that there is an attempt to reduce the consequences for Martell … and make him feel like everything is going to be OK if he simply accepts the wrong information that the detective is giving him,” Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said of the Waukegan cops who questioned the boy. “It was, like, ‘We’ve driven kids home before who have been accused of shooting if they just tell the truth.’ ”

In July, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed the nation’s first state law forbidding police from lying to minors during interrogations. The measure, which took effect Jan. 1, renders evidence from those interrogations inadmissible at trial but does not hold officers liable for the lying.

Kevin O’Connor, the family’s attorney, was allowed to see the interrogation video Wednesday night. He said detectives told Martell they could get him home in 10 minutes, that the boy shivered in a T-shirt throughout the interrogation, and that he was not provided any lunch.

“It was literally like watching a little kid who was a zombie, who was ready to answer whatever they told him,” O’Connor said. “It was a complete manipulation of a child. … He would have confessed to killing John F. Kennedy.”

Deceptive police-interrogation techniques, Rinehart said, have led to wrongful convictions of Lake County adults, including Jerry Hobbs, who confessed to stabbing his young daughter and her friend to death in 2005. Hobbs recanted but the confession sent him to jail for five years before DNA evidence linked the crime to another man and the charges were dropped.

Rinehart also pointed to a false confession by Juan Rivera Jr. that led to his conviction in the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old in Waukegan. He spent 20 years in prison before he was cleared by DNA.

“In light of Lake County’s history with wrongful convictions, wrongful prosecutions and false confessions, it’s important that we do everything we can to minimize the interrogation tactics that increase the chances of false confessions from either juveniles or adults who are under extreme pressure,” Rinehart said.

Rinehart said the Waukegan Police Department did not wait for Martell to reach his mother, Shanika Williams, or find an attorney and provided him only a police-assigned advocate that ill-served the boy.

“Our law has long recognized that juveniles are different, that their brains are still developing, that they may seek immediate gratification and want to please authority figures, and that that’s a dangerous situation to get false confessions,” Rinehart said. “When you tell a juvenile that another individual is an advocate for you, [the child is] going to believe that that person will step in to protect [the child] if something is going wrong. And that just further amplifies the feeling that, ‘These authorities must know what’s going on and I don’t.’ ”

Rinehart said his office, until receiving the exculpatory evidence, was planning to upgrade the aggravated battery charges to attempted murder at Martell’s first court hearing.

The interrogation video, Rinehart said, also showed that the detectives carrying out Martell’s interrogation did not inform him until midway through the questioning that he had a right to remain silent.

A Waukegan police statement said city officials could not comment on the case and said officers are still trying to solve the shooting.

Rinehart said he will ask Waukegan Interim Police Chief Keith Zupec to put the city’s officers through training by the state’s attorney’s office about complying with the new ban on lying to children under interrogation. The state’s attorney said his office has already led training sessions on the law for the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force and the Lake County Juvenile Officers Association.

Rinehart said his office will also help write state legislation banning police personnel from serving as “advocates” for children under interrogation by the same department.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.