Rockford Register Star

Published: April 24, 2005


Put safeguards in place to protect accused kids

A lawsuit was predictable in the case of two teenagers who were wrongly charged in the February slaying of a Machesney Park man.

Indeed, the Winnebago County Sheriff's Department has been sued for $7 million in a bizarre case involving a 14-year-old boy who falsely confessed to a murder. The boy, who is not being named because of his young age, was charged with fatally shooting 37-year-old Russell Welch on Feb. 6 behind the Two Wheel Inn on Auburn Street.

Inexplicably, the boy also made a videotape for police, re-enacting a crime he didn't commit. He even implicated a friend, who also was arrested and charged.

THE LAWSUIT WAS brought by mothers of the two youths who were wrongly charged, and it names Winnebago County Sheriff Dick Meyers, his department, detectives and deputies.

We can't speculate on the lawsuit's merits, but we can urge local police to thoroughly review how they deal with juvenile suspects.

The two boys had been in jail for two weeks when credible evidence emerged that linked another young man to the crime. Sheriff Meyers has said, unequivocally, that the first two boys who were arrested had nothing to do with the homicide.

The stunned public was left to wonder: What the heck happened? How could a boy sign a confession for and re-enact a crime that he did not commit? How many other innocent people are in jail on the basis of false confessions? And what can prevent this from happening?

Illinois statutes contain specific provisions for dealing with juveniles. The statutes are intended both to protect young suspects and, in the long run, help prosecutors build legitimate cases when charges are warranted.

Meyers publicly supports the detectives who interviewed the boy, telling the editorial board shortly after the incident, "We can't find any glaring issues" in the interrogation process that would have led the boy to make a false confession.

Nobody was disciplined for what went wrong. All Meyers promised was that the department would review its interrogation techniques to see what the interviewers might have done -- if anything -- to lead the boy to cook up a phony story.

He said the review would be done by the same agency that usually does the department's training, the agency that honed the skills that somehow produced the false confession. There's something perversely circular about that.

MEYERS SAYS in one breath that "the 14-year-old bears no responsibility for how this happened," and in the next breath, he says that "the 14-year-old's conduct has some part in the outcome."

It is predictable that a sheriff who knows he's facing a lawsuit might minimize the gravity of the situation. Still, Meyers' reaction falls short.

The public needs assurances that this is not business as usual and that extreme measures will be taken to make sure it can't happen again.

Public defenders and the boy's private attorney say the confession was coerced by keeping the boy up all night, threatening him with long prison sentences if he said one thing and promising he could go home if he said something else. They say detectives gave the boy leading details about what they wanted to hear so that he could give them the "right" answers.

The truth will come out in court.

If this case had happened after July 1, there would be fewer questions about what went wrong and who was to blame. Starting in July, interrogations in murder investigations must be videotaped. The sheriff's office has the equipment to comply with the new law, but the equipment had not been installed when the boy was interrogated, Meyers said.

Other safeguards needed to be applied.

IT'S A LAW that a youth officer must be present whenever a juvenile is being questioned about a crime. That person's role is to protect the young person's interests. A youth officer was present during the boy's questioning, but defense attorneys say he participated in the interrogation, which they claim violates the spirit of the law.

Every effort should be made to have a parent or guardian present during a child's interrogation. The law does not require parents to give their consent for questioning if there is probable cause for arrest. However, children are more suggestible than adults, and they should be accompanied by an adult who's looking out for their best interests.

Children who don't have parents present and who don't have private counsel to call could be in a fix. The problem for indigent defendants is that their public defenders are not appointed until the first court appearance. By then, the damage is done.

Everyone knew this case was not going to just go away. Liability issues aside, the goal should be to figure out what went wrong and prevent it from happening again.

How the System Works
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct

Truth in Justice