After being universally drubbed for her comments during a recent 60 Minutes segment on false confessions in Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez wrote to the head of CBS to complain of what she viewed as one-sided and unfair coverage on the broadcast. You can read her letter here. Among the points she raised,
- There were 5 men convicted in the murder of Cataresa Matthews, not 3. Two men pled guilty to the charges in court where they were represented by counsel and testified against the other three.
- Bob Milan, the trial prosecutor featured in the piece, took the confession in the Dixmoor case and was the best person to see whether “mistreatment and coercion” took place.
While these are interesting points, they just indicate that, for all the progress Ms. Alvarez has made in her office to investigate wrongful convictions, she just doesn’t get it when it comes to false confessions. We know beyond a doubt that people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, and they often testify against other “co-defendants” as part of the deal they receive.
Moreover, the fact that some of the statements were secured with a prosecutor present who saw no “coercion” misses the point. The techniques used to obtain a false confession do not always involve overt coercion; furthermore, police generally have already been talking to suspects long before the prosecutors arrive. Mr. Milan was quite clear in his statement to 60 Minutes: he’s haunted at having played a role in these tragedies.
The Chicago police had a more productive response to the segment. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy pointed out that the department has undertaken major reforms since those cases were prosecuted. For instance, he noted the state has required videotaping of all homicide interrogations and confessions for years, to document whether proper procedures were followed.
“You know, there’s been so many other things; upgrading supervision in the department, better training for our detectives, and looking at the methods that we’re doing lineups, for instance,” he said.
McCarthy said all police procedures are under review, even now.
“We’ve got nine separate committees that are working on revamping everything that we do,” McCarthy said.
We learn more daily about how to prevent wrongful convictions. As we do, police departments nationwide are working to improve their investigation techniques; a development we applaud and support.