Boy's conviction thrown out
By Steve Mills ChicagoTribune staff reporter
A federal judge has thrown out the murder conviction of a boy who was 11 years old in 1994 when he confessed to Chicago police, saying that his statement was improperly obtained and that police and prosecutors failed to protect his rights.
The case involves a boy known only as A.M. because he was a juvenile when the murder occurred and when he was arrested and interrogated by a Chicago police detective named James Cassidy, who 4 years later obtained similar confessions from two young boys in the investigation of Ryan Harris' murder.
"It's been a long time coming, but this opinion is well worth the wait," Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor and a lawyer for A.M., said Thursday. "It's the first court opinion to look at what happened to A.M. in the interrogation room through the child's eye."
U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled Wednesday that the boy's arrest was illegal and that his confession should have been thrown out because it was the result of coercion by the authorities. She said the boy was never free to leave the police station where he was being questioned, and she said that authorities did not question him in the presence of his parents or a police youth officer, as they should have.
Pallmeyer ruled, too, that A.M.'s trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to try to have the arrest or the confession thrown out when, she determined, there clearly were grounds for a trial judge to do so.
"No reasonable trial strategy exists to justify the failure," she wrote.
Cassidy could not be reached, and a Chicago police spokesman was unavailable for comment. Cook County prosecutors also could not be reached.
A.M. was convicted of the 1993 murder of 84-year-old Anna Gilvis in a Southwest Side apartment next to where the boy and his family live. Her throat had been slashed and a gold watch and diamond ring were missing. A telephone cord had been ripped from the wall and tightly wound around Gilvis' arms, neck and hands. Her ankles were bound with a cloth ribbon, and her cane was found in pieces near her body.
None of the boy's fingerprints were found inside the home and a bloody palm print and a bloody shoe print could not be matched to the boy. Police said they charged A.M. because of his confession, even though a blood trail suggested the 173-pound Gilvis had been dragged from the kitchen to the bathroom. At the time of the murder, the boy was about 5-feet-1 and weighed 88 pounds.
At a hearing in January 2000, he claimed he confessed only because Cassidy yelled and cursed at him, saying "I know you did it. I know you killed her" and because Cassidy told him God would forgive him.
"I just broke down and said I did it," the boy, who Drizin said has always maintained his innocence, testified at the federal court hearing.
Pallmeyer said in her 34-page ruling that the confession was the only evidence against the boy. She made note of the many inconsistencies between the statement and the physical evidence at the murder scene.
A Tribune investigation in December 2001 found that police routinely violate the rights of juveniles when they are being interrogated. Said Drizin: "Everybody who was involved in this interrogation was criticized for treating an 11-year-old no differently than they would treat an adult."
Drizin said the family declined comment but he described the boy, who now is 19 and has a job in a manufacturing plant, as "ecstatic."
A.M. was sentenced to 5 years of probation, which he already has completed.