Retrial ordered in death of teen

State court faults Calumet City cops over confession

By Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporter

January 25, 2002

The Illinois Appellate Court on Thursday set aside the murder conviction of a Burnham man, ruling that his confession to a street gang shooting when he was 15 was improperly obtained by Calumet City police.

It is the 248th murder case in Cook County since 1991 where police obtained incriminating statements that failed to secure a conviction or were thrown out by the courts as tainted.

A unanimous three-judge panel ordered a new trial for Terrence Griffin, now 23, who was found guilty of the 1993 murder of Michael Herring, 15, and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

The opinion, authored by Appellate Justice Mary Jane Theis, found that Griffin's parents had been barred from seeing him while he was at the police station and that he was questioned outside the presence of a concerned adult--a scenario frowned upon by the courts. It further noted that Griffin was held for 18 hours before he signed a handwritten confession.

The court held that "the coercive atmosphere created by these circumstances rendered [Griffin's] statement involuntary" and ordered the case to be retried without the confession as evidence.

A representative for the Cook County state's attorney's office said officials were reviewing the court opinion and no decision had been made on whether to appeal the ruling, retry the case or drop the charges.

Griffin was charged as an adult in the fatal shooting of Herring, as were two other juvenile co-defendants. Dearlo Terry, then 16, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Ricky Davis, then 16, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years.

A Tribune investigation, published last month, detailed how police repeatedly have closed investigations with dubious confessions that imprisoned the innocent while killers went free. The investigation showed that police in Cook County and Chicago have ignored the law while interrogating juveniles--obtaining at least 71 murder confessions from suspects age 16 and younger in the last decade that were so unreliable that they were thrown out, the charges were dropped or the defendants were acquitted at trial.

In Griffin's case, the Appellate Court criticized then-Calumet City Police Chief Steve Rhodes for misleading Griffin's parents.

Griffin was arrested about 11 p.m. on Jan. 25, 1993, a day after Herring was shot in an encounter that police at the time said was gang-related. His parents arrived at the station about midnight and asked to see their son, but they were refused, according to their testimony in court. They later left to tend to their other children but returned at noon and spoke with Rhodes, "who told the Griffins that [the boy] had already confessed and they could not see him," the opinion said.

"In fact, [Griffin] did not make or sign a statement until after 5 p.m. that evening," the court said.

The court also criticized Calumet City Police Officer Bernard Begeske, who, as the youth officer assigned to the investigation, was responsible for providing counsel to the boy in his parents' absence.

Begeske, the court said, also prevented the parents from talking to their son, failing to fulfill his duty as a youth officer.

Efforts to contact Begeske and Rhodes were unsuccessful.

"Begeske did not remain a neutral observer but, rather, worked against [Griffin's] interests," the opinion said.

Begeske actively investigated the case, questioning other suspects and leaving the station to conduct a search for weapons, the opinion said. "He contributed to the coercive atmosphere surrounding [Griffin's] confession," the opinion said.

"The Griffins, by their presence at the police station, indicated an interest in their son and the police had an affirmative duty to stop questioning and allow his parents to confer with him," the court ruled.

Tomas Gonzalez, an assistant state appellate defender who defended Griffin on appeal, said the ruling "is a strong message to police to do it right, especially when it involves juveniles."

"The frustration of the parents' attempts to see their son and the lack of an adult during questioning were pretty significant factors," Gonzalez said. "It was very troubling, the way they conducted this investigation. And now, without the confession as evidence, their case is going to be significantly weakened."

The evidence against Griffin consisted largely of his confession and statements given by three witnesses to police during the investigation. Two of those witnesses recanted at trial, but prosecutors were allowed to introduce their previous statements into evidence.


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice