Stories about people confessing to crimes they know nothing about seem to be all over the news. This Sunday, 60 minutes ran a segment on a group of men from Chicago, one of whom provided a “confession” to a horrific crime, yet all of whom were completely innocent. What struck us was the intransigence of the current State’s Attorney to accept that the 4 men had been imprisoned for a crime committed by another; even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Which led us to wonder: why do prosecutors fail to acknowledge innocence when it is in front of them?
Terrill Swift, Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, and Harold Richardson were convicted in one rape and murder of a 30 year old woman. Terrill Swift, then 17, was implicated by another in the crime. After an interrogation lasting over 12 hours, Terrill ‘confessed’ to the crime. Told he could leave if he confessed, Terrill did as he was told. He signed a 21-page confession giving specific details to how he and his co-defendants committed the crime. He was sentenced to over 30 years, as were his co-defendants.
But last year, the Innocence Project retested the one DNA sample recovered inside the victim. It not only excluded the boys, it showed a match: to Johnny Douglas, a serial rapist and convicted killer, who is now deceased. The trial prosecutor, Bob Milan, says he is “haunted” at having convicted 5 innocent boys.
Bob Milan: I never believed anybody would confess to a horrible crime they didn’t commit. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe people would confess to rape and murder of a woman. You know, just didn’t believe it. But based on my experiences, I found it did happen. These young men lost a lot of good lives, I was part of it, I didn’t mean it, I never would have done that intentionally, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
Byron Pitts: Yeah. Haunts you, still, it sounds like.
Bob Milan: Sure. Always will.
Byron Pitts: Why would a detective push for a false confession? You think?
Bob Milan: What happens is it’s tunnel vision. OK. They get locked in on this individual. So the anonymous phone call, the confidential informant, the well-meaning witness sends them in the wrong path.
But the current State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, feels differently. She still believes, even with no confirming DNA evidence, no physical evidence, nothing to show the boys committed any crime, that Terrill Swift’s confession was genuine. Why? Because she found no ‘misconduct.’
Anita Alvarez: We have not uncovered any evidence of any misconduct by the police officers or the State’s Attorneys that took the statements in these cases.
Byron Pitts: Did you find any of the boys’ DNA on the victim?
Anita Alvarez: No, we didn’t.
Byron Pitts: Did you find any of their DNA in the basement of the house?
Anita Alvarez: No.
Byron Pitts: How do you explain that the boys would say they raped a woman, and there not be any DNA evidence? Doesn’t that strike you as odd?
Anita Alvarez: Well, we would love to have DNA on everything. And every piece of evidence that we have, in every crime. But it doesn’t necessarily occur.
Byron Pitts: You find out years later that, in fact, the DNA found inside the victim’s body belonged to Johnny Douglas. And Johnny Douglas is a convicted serial rapist and murderer. That doesn’t tell you that he most likely is the person who killed this woman?
Anita Alvarez: No. It doesn’t. Is he a bad guy? Absolutely, he is. Absolutely. But, can we prove, just by someone’s bad background, that they committed this particular crime? It takes much more than that.
According to Ms. Alvarez, the convicted rapist/murderer who matched the DNA from the victim engaged in necrophilia with her after Mr. Swift and his cohorts raped and murdered her. “It happens,” she said.
Why would a prosecutor go to such lengths to defend a conviction so undermined by science? For the same reason that police can obtain a confession riddled with information that conflicts with the physical evidence without questioning the confessor’s innocence. Because they are human. And all humans see the world through their own biased viewpoint.
Social scientists call this “cognitive bias.” When we, as humans, encounter a situation we apply our own set of biases to the information to process it, make sense of it, and to incorporate it. Confirmation bias, for example, leads people to seek out and prefer information that tends to confirm the belief they’ve already formed. If police or prosecutors believe that an individual committed a crime, then they will tend to view any evidence that comes before them through that lens, applying that bias. Where false confessions occur, they will tend to overemphasize the fact that the person ‘confessed’ without proper attention to the conflicting facts in the statement, or evidence that points elsewhere.
Mr. Milan said it best, himself: it’s “tunnel vision.” Police and prosecutors focus in on one suspect, and then search for evidence inculpating him, ignoring or downplaying exculpatory evidence or considering alternative suspects. So for Ms. Alvarez to believe in Mr. Swift’s guilt because she saw no “misconduct” is to miss everything. It’s not misconduct that’s the problem. It’s that we are all human. And we need to start recognizing this and develop safeguards within law enforcement to account for the tragic consequences of our own humanity.
Here is the entire segment on the false confessions from Chicago. Watch, and see what you think.