Chicago: The false confession capital

It's hard to believe people would confess to a heinous crime they didn't commit, but they do -- especially teenagers

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.