Confession Scandal In Chicago

Boys "confess" to crimes, then charges dismissed when boys proved innocent

Officials claim nothing wrong done, normal practices used

Death in Chicago

On July 27, 1998, an 11 year old girl, Ryan Harris, went riding her bike on a warm summer day in Chicago. She never came home. The next day she was found outdoors in a small wooded area, brutally murdered. Underpants were stuffed in her mouth. An autopsy revealed the cause of death was blunt trauma to the head and asphyxiation. There was also evidence of sexual molestation.

The nation was stunned to hear that the police had arrested two boys, age 7 and 8, and charged them with the murder. Police officials announced that the boys had confessed that they attacked the girl with rocks and suffocated her in order to steal her bicycle. Because of their ages, their names were not revealed in the press.

It came out soon after that the boys had originally told police that they saw a man in a car approach Ryan and lure her and her bicycle into the car. But, police got suspicious and subjected the boys to more questioning. After hours of interrogation, each boy had agreed with the officers that he had indeed been involved in the murder, and that their intention was to steal her bike.

Of course, the police and courts had little choice but to hold these children in custody. If they would be so lacking in conscience that they would brutally kill another child in a robbery, other children would not be safe if these boys walked the streets.

The prosecutors, having evidence of a brutal murder, and having confessions from the culprits, had little choice but to go forward and prosecute the boys for murder. And, this was a murder in the course of a robbery. If adults, they could get the death penalty. And, indeed, the United States Supreme Court allows states to impose the death penalty on juveniles, though they have never had a death penalty case with defendants so young. Given the age of the defendants, no one was surprised when prosecutors announced that Illinois law allowed only imprisonment, not death, for these minors.

Boys ruled innocent despite confessions; a happy ending?

What prosecutors announced 6 weeks later again shocked the nation. It seems that the girl had semen on her underpants. Medical experts concluded that the boys were too young to have emitted this semen. The killer had to be older. So, the charges were dismissed and the boys went home. The police subjected the semen to DNA testing, which might someday lead to the identity of the actual killer. So, a happy ending, right?

Well, there is one little problem. Suppose that the semen had never been found? Well of course, in that case these boys would be on their way to a lifetime of hell, even though just as innocent. After all, they had "confessed" they were guilty, didn't they? And innocent people don't confess, do they?

Did they actually confess? Were they coerced?

Lawyers for the 8 year old boy said that police fabricated the confession. In other words, they charge that the boy never did confess, and the police just made it up.

Lawyers for the 7 year old boy said that police pressured him into agreeing to things that weren't true.

Confessions are unreliable evidence

So, how reliable is a confession? As we see in this case, they are not reliable at all. Police can use any pressure tactics they want to get people to do what they say. These tactics often work even on adults. How much more effective, then, are they on kids? If you start yelling at a child for saying the "wrong" thing, the child, trying to please the adult, changes what he is saying, until he says what gets him approval from the adults in charge. If they want to place the child in a room without toys, and make him fear he will never go home until he says the right thing, and subject him to endless sessions of unwanted conversation with adults trying to manipulate him, they have the legal right to do so. If they want to bribe a child with candy or a toy, or punish him with isolation, or if they want to confuse him with lies, all that is acceptable too. Certainly no American court will interfere.

And, if the child still somehow refuses to confess, you can just lie and say he confessed anyway. There is no legal requirement that a person write out a confession, or sign a written confession. There is no legal requirement that an interrogation session be videotaped, so people later on can see how the so-called "confession" came into being. In most cases, all you have is the word of a policeman, or two policemen, that the suspect voluntarily confessed. But just about anyone would convict on this type of testimony, because, after all, everyone knows that innocent people do not confess.

While it may be hard to accept that officers would lie, look at the Rodney King beating. Not one of the officers who filed reports about the events of that night described the savage crimes they saw being committed by their fellow officers. To read more about this problem, see the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Series called Win At All Costs.

Same problem exists with police questioning of child witnesses

Now, turn to the area of police questioning children with the goal of having them declare themselves as witnesses to a crime, or victims of a crime. While some people say "believe the children," police certainly don't believe the children until the children say what the police want to hear. The police did not believe the children in Chicago who said they saw a man take Ryan and her bike, but they did believe a "confession" to murder.

A child may, for example, deny being a victim of sexual abuse. However, in case after case, investigators with full power of control over the child batter the child with interrogations until the child says what the investigators want. In several cases, such as the McMartin Preschool case, jurors heard one child after another tell the jurors the information spoon-fed them by police or social workers, and refused to convict. In these mega-cases, jurors often are more able to see clearly how the testimony of the children is part of a setup and could not possibly be true.

But, in other cases, with only one or two witnesses, it is not until years later that the former child, burdened by his conscience, finally comes forward to explain how this police officer promised him he could go home if he said his daddy did certain things, or how this prosecutor yelled at him and threatened him every time he refused to say that Aunt Sally did something bad to him.

Confessions by adults also problematic

Then, there are the cases of confessions by adults. In Detroit, David Peyton, a high school girl's basketball coach, confessed to 4 brutal murders of prostitutes after many hours of relentless interrogation by officers. He was charged with murder. Later, he was released when a man caught for a different murder gave investigators convincing details that he was the actual murderer. Peyton said he finally agreed with officers after they broke down his resistance by endless questioning. He just wanted it all to end so he could get some sleep.

In the middle ages, officials used the "trial by ordeal" to determine guilt or innocence. The accused would be subjected to an ordeal, and would be declared guilty or innocent depending on how well he stood up to the torture. In today's world we think we are more advanced, but we are not. We still have trial by ordeal, it is just a different type of ordeal.

Truth often hidden from jurors

When police give testimony about a confession, what the jurors get is a sanitized version of what really happened. Few people can remember all the details of any situation, even when they honestly want to tell the truth. The person under pressure, the suspect, has less ability to remember, and less credibility when he does remember. The police have no incentive to criticize themselves, and to rat on one's fellow officer would make any cop be treated like a traitor and an outcast.

So, we have situations where a 10 hour grueling marathon ends up as a few seconds of testimony: "I read him his rights, and he admitted he did it." The exact words of the suspect, and the exact words of the questioners, are rarely heard, much less the tones of voice, the facial expressions, and the direct and indirect threats. When it comes to judging witness credibility, courts routinely hold that the ability to see and hear the witness is essential. But, when it comes to judging the existence or reliability of a confession, courts require nothing of the sort.

The fact that in this case, police and prosecutors felt they did "nothing wrong," is frightening. If the normal way of doing things produces false confessions, then something is seriously wrong.

Confession Scandal in Michigan

A Jackson, Michigan restaurant employee was convicted in 1999 of stealing a missing deposit bag containing $2,289.20. Day manager of a Wendy's restaurant in Jackson, Robert Farnsworth, Jr. claimed he deposited two bags of receipts on March 11 into the night drop at a Comerica Bank branch office. But when the bank opened the night drop the next day, they removed only one bag.

"I told them and I told them that deposit bag had to be in that bank, and they did not believe me," Farnsworth, 29, said. "Their attitude was that I was guilty and they were going to get me." According to bank employees, what Robert Farnsworth Jr. said happened to a missing deposit bag was "absolutely impossible."

Another major factor in the case was that, according to a state police officer who testified under oath at Farnsworth's trial, Farnsworth confessed under questioning by police. Farnsworth was convicted. After 10 years of loyal service to Wendy's, he lost his job and his future.

More than six months after Farnsworth's conviction, Michael George was also missing a night deposit from his car wash business. However, Michael George was not some ordinary citizen, like Robert Farnsworth. George was fortunate enough to know Comerica president Rick Davies, and asked him to help track down his missing $1,825 deposit. "I went to Rick Davies, who is a friend, because we weren't getting anywhere with the bank," George said. "I said we had to find that missing money."

So on Feb. 28, 2000, technicians opened the night drop and found three deposit bags that had gotten stuck in the vault's mechanism -- something bank employees said at Farnsworth's trial was not possible. Among the three bags was the missing Wendy's deposit Farnsworth insisted he made almost a year earlier.

To his credit, upon learning of the new evidence, Jackson County Chief Assistant Prosecutor David Lady promptly filed a motion to set aside Farnsworth's conviction. "My apology on behalf of the proofs that convicted him," Circuit Judge Charles Nelson said March 8, 2000. "It is obvious you didn't do it."

Yet, sworn testimony at the trial said that Farnsworth confessed. This certainly suggests that police testimony about a confession is not the reliable proof of guilt that prosecutors routinely claim it to be. Of course, the jurors who convicted Farnsworth could not see for themselves what he actually said to police, nor could they see the conditions under which he said whatever he said. They had to take the word of an officer that Farnsworth said it, and how the so-called confession supposedly came about.

The frightening thing is that people are convicted on the basis of such testimony and procedures every day. Some even get the death penalty.

Naturally, no police officer is being prosecuted for perjury or obstruction of justice, and the bank employees who falsely swore to the impossibility of Farnsworth's defense also are getting a free pass. So don't think that this won't happen again. It will, perhaps even to one of your loved ones.

But for Michael George happening to be a friend of the bank president, Robert Farnsworth would still be a convicted felon with no hope.

18 Year Old Confesses To Rape And Murder

On August 31, 2000 about 1:15 a.m., an intruder entered the Detroit home of 12 year old J'Nai Glasker and her family. He raped the girl, and bludgeoned her to death in her own bedroom. The mother saw the attacker and went to call 911 as the attacker ran. Two police officers chased him, but he got away. The family and community were horrified, as well as frightened.

Michael Gayles, 18, lived 3 blocks away. A "composite drawing," made by an artist based on witness descriptions, led to a tip that the drawing resembled Gayles. Police picked him up, and began an interrogation. After he failed a "lie detector" test, police confronted him with his failure. After a questioning session the details of which remain unrevealed, Gayles ended up verbally confessing to the rape and murder, as well as signing a confession. In his third signed confession, he implicates his mother as having helped wash the blood off him when he returned home.

Perhaps inspired by the confession, the murdered girl's mother and another eyewitness identified Gayles as the person they saw running away. It seemed like the perfect case. That is, until the DNA results came in.

Yes, it seems that two weeks later, police had to let Gayles go because he was innocent. Yet, the testimony of the officers that Gayles verbally confessed and signed the written confessions was unquestionably true, despite his innocence.

If the attacker had worn a condom, Michael Gayles would be serving the rest of his life in prison, and even the freedom of his mother would have been in jeopardy.

For more information, see the Detroit Free Press article of February 27, 2001, Anatomy of a False Confession by Jack Kresnak.

But what about the lie detector?

At the present time, most courts treat the lie detector (polygraph) test as being unreliable and inadmissible in court. There are good reasons for this. For one, see the story, above, on Michael Gayles, condemned as guilty by the polygraph, but proved innocent by the DNA.

On February 21, 1994, the FBI announced the arrest of Aldrich Ames, an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for espionage against the United States. Investigation showed that he had been spying since 1985. Yet, in 1986, and in 1991, Ames took polygraph tests and examiners determined that there was no indication of deception. It was not until agents searched the trash from his home that his guilt was confirmed. Of course, Ames was a professional intelligence officer for the United States, and possibly would know how to beat the test. Would an ordinary person be able to beat the polygraph?

On September 25, 1985, Dorothy Tyburski of Canton, Michigan, disappeared. Her husband, Leonard Tyburski, said that Dorothy had told him she was running away with another man, and that as far as he knew, she was in Ohio. Yet, no one had heard from Dorothy, and police suspected she might no longer be alive.

The police had him take a lie detector test, and the polygraph examiner found that Mr. Tyburski was telling the truth. As time went by, and Dorothy still was not found, they called him in again for more questioning. He took another lie detector test, and passed again. Later, he was questioned and tested again, with the same results. Leonard Tyburski was sticking with his story, and despite some suspicions by the police, they had no real evidence that Dorothy had not run off with another man.

On January 2, 1989, the body of Dorothy Tyburski was found in a freezer in Leonard's basement. He was arrested and charged with her murder. At his trial, Leonard Tyburski testified that he did kill her in an argument in the heat of passion and stuffed her in the freezer back in 1985. He testified that he had repeatedly lied to the police about her not being dead, about him not knowing where she was, and about his belief that she had run off to Ohio. What the jury did not hear, and that you now know, is that Leonard Tyburski, while telling those lies, passed the lie detector test THREE TIMES.

A proposal for change

What we propose is that we begin by saying that all interrogations of children who are suspects should be videotaped. In no other way can their rights be protected. In no other way can jurors possibly know whether it was a real confession of a guilty party, or someone tricked by double-talk, or someone promised he could go home if he only says the right thing, or someone badgered until he gave in, or someone being lied about.

The same should be true for children being questioned about major crimes. How can jurors possibly know if the child is giving his own thoughts, or the thoughts pounded into him by zealous investigators having the power of carrot, stick, and endless repetition, if the real facts are forever kept secret?

If we really wanted to be fair, we would extend the same right to interrogations of adult suspects. But, it is questionable whether our system can stand that much fairness at once. Let it be introduced a little at a time.

Police can audiotape and videotape interrogations whenever they want. and they can refuse to do it whenever they want. Courts give them full authority to decide whether a jury will get the whole story, or a carefully edited tiny slice of the story. This must end. If police departments do not do it on their own, then courts or legislatures should provide that when police take a suspect down to the station for interrogation, a complete video or at least audio record of that interrogation shall be made.

Of course, if such a rule were to be made, some police would stop questioning most suspects at the police station to avoid the rule, because the last thing they would want is people seeing how they really handle the people who come into their possession. The same thing happened after the 1962 United States Supreme Court ruling in Mapp v. Ohio. The Supreme Court did not change the definition of which police searches were legal and which were illegal; they simply provided a penalty for an illegal search: suppression of the fruits of the search from evidence. Suddenly, around the country the air was filled with the complaints of police and prosecutors that they now had to "comply" with the Mapp decision, even though that decision did not make illegal any police practices. The practices were already illegal.

And, unfortunately, in the year following the Mapp decision there was a 600% jump in police reports saying that suspects had thrown down or abandoned property, which would prevent the Mapp rule from applying. Was this the suspects changing their behavior, or police inventing new tactics to fit new circumstances?

No matter how many good, honest, hardworking police there are, abuses are happening, and not always intentionally. Our whole governmental system is based on checks and balances, and it should be the same for our criminal justice system. To have reliable police work, we need a check on the police. The only effective check is videotaping of interrogations. Shame on every police department that has failed to make use of this tool of the truth, and shame on every court and legislature that has failed to make them.

Return to the Special Reports page.
Return to The Injustice Line main page.