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Chicago: The false confession capital

The following script is from "The False Confession Capital" which aired on Dec. 9, 2012. Byron Pitts is the correspondent. Ira Rosen and Gabrielle Schonder, producers.

Why would anyone confess to a crime they did not commit? It happens so often in Chicago, defense attorneys call the city the false confession capital of the United States. Chicago has twice as many documented false confession cases as any city in the country. One reason may be the way police go about questioning suspects. And 60 Minutes has learned the Chicago Police Department is now the subject of a Justice Department investigation into its interrogation practices.

Two cases we examined involve several teenage boys who were arrested and they say forced or tricked into confessing to violent crimes they never committed. Each spent nearly half their lives in prison. They are free now, and told us their story together for the first time.

Terrill Swift: We all of us got one thing in common. We did an extensive amount of time in jail for something we didn't do. And that's the bottom line.

They each would serve sentences that ranged from 15 years to life. Terrill Swift, Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, and Harold Richardson were convicted in one rape and murder. James Harden, Robert Taylor and Jonathan Barr, in a different one. All were found guilty based solely on confessions.

Byron Pitts: Jonathan, you went in as a 14-year-old boy?

Jonathan Barr: Yes, sir.

Byron Pitts: What'd you come out as?

Jonathan Barr: Came out as a 34-year-old man.

Michael Saunders: Yeah, we was young, little kids

James Harden: To be honest with you man, I miss my mama, man. I miss my mom and daddy, man. I miss my mama. It seemed like some days, I can't function.

Byron Pitts: She die while you were in prison?

James Harden: Yeah.

Their troubles began in 1991 when Chicago was in the midst of a violent crime wave. More than 900 homicides in 12 months. Police were under enormous pressure to solve those crimes.

Terrill Swift was 17, was still in high school, had never been in serious trouble, when another teenager from his neighborhood implicated him, Vincent, Michael and Harold in the rape and murder of a 30-year-old prostitute named Nina Glover.

Byron Pitts: Did anyone ask you "Terrill Swift, did you murder this woman?"

Terrill Swift: That was the first thing they said. Whoa. Raped and beat who? Nina, I don't know Nina Glover. Can I get my mother in here so I can get a lawyer? And nothing.

Terrill voluntarily turned himself in to police and was placed in an interrogation room, surrounded by several detectives. The questioning he said lasted for over 12 hours.

Byron Pitts: How close were they? Show me physically how close were they?

Terrill Swift: Like right here. "You're gonna die in jail. You're never going home."

Byron Pitts: Yelling at you?

Terrill Swift: Yelling at me.

Byron Pitts: Were you scared? Did you cry?

Terrill Swift: Absolutely, I was crying, but no one listened.

Terrill wanted to go home and says police told him if he admitted to the rape and murder he could leave. So he signed a 21-page confession which gave specific details to how he and his co-defendants committed the crime.

Byron Pitts: I got to tell you, the first time I read it, all 21 pages, I said, "That man is guilty."

Terrill Swift: Right. Everything that's in that confession was fed to us, myself and my co-defendants by the police.

Byron Pitts: Did they force you to sign?

Terrill Swift: No.

Byron Pitts: So why'd you sign it?

Terrill Swift: I thought I was going home.

Byron Pitts: You were 17 years old, so you weren't a child.

Terrill Swift: I guess I was still a mama's boy.

Byron Pitts: Come on now. You had to know if you admitted to raping and killing a woman, you weren't going home to mama.

Terrill Swift: I had no understanding of that, none.

Terrill Swift would later recant, but it was too late, at trial a judge believed the confession and sentenced him to 30 years.

Robert Taylor: That whole ordeal, it done something to every last one of us. And with me, it'd made me numb.

In the other case, Robert Taylor, Jonathan Barr and James Harden were arrested in high school for the rape and murder of their classmate 14-year-old Catteresa Matthews. They were taken into custody after a fellow student gave their names to police as possible suspects. Robert was 15 when he says he was taken into an interrogation room and forced to sign a confession.

Robert Taylor: Man, you being cuffed up and beat on by the police. Man, them people can get you to do-- do what they want you to do.

Byron Pitts: What did they make you do?

Robert Taylor: Made me sign. I mean, that murdered me. It killed me inside.

His co-defendant James Harden says he was told by police if he signed the confession he'd be released immediately.

James Harden: They had the statement already wrote up and the man say, "Do you want to go home and sleep in your bed tonight?" So I said, "Hell, yeah." So that's how easy it is for a person to sign their life away just the thought-- just being taken away from your parents and say, "OK, I want to go home and sleep in my bed tonight. Hell yeah, I fixing to sign it."

But James never got home that night. Instead, he and the others were tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Bob Milan: There's nothing worse as a prosecutor than playing a role in sending an innocent person or people to prison for many years. There's nothing worse.

Bob Milan should know. As a young prosecutor, he worked this case. And would eventually rise to second in command in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. Now in private practice, he says publicly for the first time, he should have examined the confessions more closely.

Bob Milan: I never believed anybody would confess to a horrible crime they didn't commit. I didn't believe it.

Bob Milan: 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.

Bob Milan: 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.

Chicago has a long history of false confessions. Two years ago, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was convicted on federal charges related to torture. Including, the use of electric shock during questioning and one where he gained a confession after he placed a gun to a suspect's head. So far, more than 85 convictions have been overturned in Illinois since 1989, many as a result of police misconduct.

Peter Neufeld: Quite simply what Cooperstown is to Baseball, Chicago is to false confessions. It is the Hall of Fame.

Peter Neufeld was one of the defense attorneys representing these men. He is the co-founder of the Innocence Project, an organization that has helped exonerate 300 wrongfully convicted men nationwide, with the use of DNA testing.

Peter Neufeld: There are more juvenile false confessions in Chicago than any place in the United States. What's happening? It's not because the kids are different that makes them more vulnerable to confessing. It's because the way the police keep pounding and pounding and pounding away in those interrogation rooms. You get innocent kids to confess to crimes they didn't commit.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez disagrees. Responding to public pressure, she set up a new unit within her office, to re-examine questionable prosecutions. But she defends the actions of the police in these two cases.

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.

Alvarez still believes the confession Terrill Swift gave in the Nina Glover case. Despite the fact there was no DNA evidence linking him or the others to the crime.

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.

Last year, the Innocence Project retested the one DNA sample that was recovered inside the victim Nina Glover. It was submitted to the National DNA Database and a match was made to Johnny Douglas, a serial rapist and convicted killer, who is now deceased. But the new discovery did not change Anita Alvarez's mind.

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.

Michael Saunders: For her to just say DNA is not everything, well what else do you have if DNA don't matter?

Terrill Swift: This was a rape and a murder. How can you say DNA is nothing?

Byron Pitts: Why would a confession trump DNA evidence?

Saul Kassin: Because confessions are incredibly compelling. Nobody can understand how they would ever be goaded into confessing to something they didn't do.

Saul Kassin is a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and has studied police interrogation practices and false confessions for 27 years.

Saul Kassin: One would think DNA is supposed to solve our problems. It's supposed to identify the perpetrator and absolve the innocent. Here you have cases where they absolve the innocent but we don't believe them because the innocent have confessed. And so the DNA doesn't matter anymore.

In the case of Robert Taylor, Jonathan Barr and James Harden, DNA found inside the 14-year-old victim Catteresa Matthews was also retested, and a match was made to Willie Randolph, a 34-year-old convicted rapist, with 39 arrests.

Peter Neufeld says prosecutors rejected the DNA evidence and instead came up with an unusual theory to explain it all away.

Peter Neufeld: They suggest perhaps after the kids killed her this man wandered by and committed an act of necrophilia.

Byron Pitts: Necrophilia. A lot of our viewers won't know what that means.

Peter Neufeld: Having sex with a dead person.

Anita Alvarez: It's possible. We have seen cases like that.

Byron Pitts: Possible?

Anita Alvarez: It is. We've seen it in other cases.

Byron Pitts: It's possible that this convicted rapist, wandered past an open field, and had sex with a 14-year-old girl who was dead?

Anita Alvarez: Well, there's all kinds of possibilities out there, and what I'm saying is that I don't know what happened.

Bob Milan: People don't like to admit they made a mistake. But we need to do that. Our job as a prosecutor--isn't to win, our job is to get it right.

Former prosecutor Bob Milan says that prosecutors need to put the same sense of urgency into exonerations as they once did into prosecutions.

Bob Milan: When you have physical evidence, it doesn't lie. So when you have the DNA on a girl from some guy with a history of sexual attacks that pretty much tells you where you're going.

Byron Pitts: Not the people who gave the confessions?

Bob Milan: No.

By now 10 defense attorneys were focusing on the new DNA. Working with them was a third-year Northwestern Law School student named Katie Marie Zouhary. She was assigned to re-examine the original confessions and her research helped change the case.

Katie Marie Zouhary: I think when you look at a confession on a piece of paper, a court reported confession, a handwritten confession, it seems like all the pieces are in place.

Katie Marie Zouhary: But what you don't see is the 17-year-old in the room by himself with the police officers, what you don't see is that confession next to the other confessions. So you're able to see that these things don't match up. And it's not just a "one of these things is not like the others," it's "all of these things are not like the others."

Zouhary discovered the boys' confessions contained different accounts of the crimes, from the chronology to their own nicknames.

Katie Marie Zouhary: They get the framework right, but they don't get the details right. And if any two of them had gotten the details right that would be one thing, But when you look at each of these confession line-by-line in the way we did. It's pretty glaring that there is no cohesive story here.

Last year, based on the new DNA evidence, and Katie Marie's work the courts vacated the convictions and granted all of them certificates of innocence which restored their full rights as U.S. citizens.

As for Anita Alvarez, she's still not convinced Terrill Swift and his co-defendants are innocent.

Anita Alvarez: I don't know whether he committed the crime or not. There are still unanswered questions in both of these cases. That I couldn't sit here today and tell you that they are all guilty or they are all innocent.

Byron Pitts: What would you say to her if you could?

Terrill Swift: I was wrongfully incarcerated for 15 years and you're still fighting my innocence, not only mine but my co-defendants. What else needs to be done?

During our interview, Terrill's mother, who was in the room at the time, became emotional.

Byron Pitts: I could hear you crying over there. Why are you still shedding tears?

Mrs. Swift: That was hard. Actually have your child taken away from you. And he was innocent. And I knew this from the beginning, but what could I do? Not be able to get my child, my baby, my first born, that was hard and it still is. We came through it with the grace of God.

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