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Untrue Confessions

The arrest of two grade schoolers for murder 20 years ago shook the city — until it became clear their admissions couldn’t be correct.

Photo: Martha Williams

In the summer of 1998, two boys — one 7, the other 8 — were charged with the murder of an 11-year-old girl named Ryan Harris in Englewood. The boys had confessed under interrogation, but a month later, lab tests found traces of semen on the girl’s clothes, and the charges against the prepubescent boys were dropped. But how did the mistake happen? Jonathan Eig used the case to talk about the problems with implementing interrogation tactics on youths in his January 1999 Chicago story “Making Them Talk”:

When the police were finished with the two children, after they had fed them McDonald’s hamburgers and held their hands and reminded them of the difference between good boys and bad boys, they may have left the door to the interrogation chamber open a bit — just enough for the public to see what happens when justice, crudely applied, is hidden from view.

The backlash caused the Chicago Police Department to begin voluntarily recording homicide confessions. In 2005, a law took effect requiring that these interrogations be recorded in their entirety. In the Harris case, the crime scene DNA led to Floyd Durr, who was already serving 125 years for
sexually assaulting three girls in Englewood in 1998. He was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison for the murder, on top of the existing term.

The families of the boys sued the city, settling for millions of dollars. But the boys didn’t escape the criminal justice system: When he was 15, the younger one shot two people. He received a 52-year sentence for attempted murder and other charges. The older boy was later convicted of five felonies.

Read the full story below.

 

Making Them Talk

Chicago Police shocked the nation last summer with the news that two boys, ages seven and eight, had confessed to the savage murder of an 11-year-old girl. Later evidence, however, cast grave doubts on the boys’ statements. A close examination of the case provides an unusual glimpse into the system of police interrogation — fraught with tricks and lies to which children are especially vulnerable.

What happened to Ryan La Shaun Harris is a mystery. In fact, it is a mystery wrapped in layers and layers of larger mysteries. Ryan, age 11, was found on July 28, 1998, in the tall grass behind a condemned apartment building in Englewood, one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Her training bra was pulled up above her chest, her flowered panties were stuffed three and a half inches down her throat, her nostrils were crammed full of folded leaves, her face was bruised and cut, a patch of hair was torn from her scalp, her back was scraped as if she had been dragged, her left vaginal wall was torn, and her skull was fractured in several places, most likely with a brick.

Gruesome as it was, Ryan’s murder would have made but a brief appearance in the local news — had the police not arrested and charged two very young boys, one seven, the other eight. Suddenly, the murder became front-page news all over the country. Even in a year filled with accounts of children with guns opening fire on schools or slaying their own parents in cold blood, it seemed unthinkable that such little boys could have committed such a brutal crime. Yet the police said the children had confessed during interrogation.

Then, almost a month later, came more stunning news: Lab tests on Ryan’s panties detected traces of semen. That report hit the police department like a blast from a water cannon, forcing city officials and the detectives who had made the arrests to retreat and duck for cover. Police, acknowledging that the boys were too young to have produced semen, dropped all charges and began the search for new suspects.

Now, five months after Ryan’s death, the mystery of who killed Ryan Harris lingers. But, in many ways, it has been overwhelmed by the mystery of how police extracted confessions from two small children and why anyone trusted those confessions in the face of so much conflicting evidence.

The boys were not handcuffed or beaten during their interrogations, but beyond that, not much is known about how police made them talk. The detectives, as well as police department officials have declined comment. The boys have not even told their parents the details. They either can’t recall, don’t understand, or can’t bear to relive it. Still, by examining the detectives’ notes and talking to the boys’ parents, it is possible to capture at least a glimpse of what went on in that second-floor office of the Wentworth Area police station. It is also possible to remove some of the mystery from the interrogation process, which tilts the course of the American justice system and changes the lives of countless thousands of people accused of crimes every year.

When the police were finished with the two children, after they had fed them McDonald’s hamburgers and held their hands and reminded them of the difference between good boys and bad boys, they may have left the door to the interrogation chamber open a bit — just enough for the public to see what happens when justice, crudely applied, is hidden from view.

 

The two young boys who supposedly confessed to murdering Ryan Harris had been friends about half their lives. Jake, the eight-year-old, loved doughnuts. Because of that, his parents teased him by saying he would grow up to be a cop. Everyone had a good laugh. But in truth, Jake was a terrific student, with a winning personality, and his parents — an auto mechanic and a housewife — expected big things from him. When Jake began telling his parents he really did want to be a police officer, his mother and father thought it sounded pretty normal for an eight-year-old. They were pleased.

And if Jake wanted to be a cop, then his buddy Anton would probably want to do the same (the names of both boys have been changed for this article; their real names have not been publicly revealed). Anton’s parents both worked in fast food restaurants — his mother as a manager and his father as a cook. When your main hobbies are riding a bike and digging holes, being a police officer probably sounds like more fun than operating a deep fryer.

Jake is an adorable wisp of a boy with close-cropped hair, big front teeth, and a laugh that sounds like short, high notes on a piano. He’s 50 inches tall and weighs 50 pounds. He had his first close contact with police on Wednesday, August 5, nine days after Ryan’s disappearance, when detectives who went to his house explained that he and Anton had been seen throwing rocks at Ryan several days before she disappeared. The detectives said they just wanted to see if the boys knew anything that might help solve the case. The officers failed to mention that they had already received an anonymous tip saying the same boys who had thrown the rocks might have been involved in Ryan’s murder. (Police would not say where they got the tip.)

At first, according to police reports, Jake told the detectives that he had seen Ryan get into a car with an adult. A few minutes later, though, he changed his story and said he had seen the little girl’s body before police had found her, that her legs were spread wide, her pants were down, and a bloody brick was by her side. At this stage in the investigation, the boys were not suspects. Lots of people in the neighborhood had seen the body, and detailed descriptions of her condition traveled quickly through Englewood. Police wanted to pin down when the boys had seen her body so they could better gauge her time of death.

Anton is barely four feet tall. He weighs 60 pounds, has a chubby face, and wears his hair in long, fat braids capped with blue beads. He’s especially proud of his braids. He’s a sweet boy, but he is almost completely uncommunicative, even with his parents, because of a speech disorder. He grunts and mumbles in deep, froggy tones and rarely scratches together more than three words at a time. His mother translates. He is missing two front teeth and still sucks his thumb. When the detectives visited Anton, also on August 5, they took the boy and his mother for a ride in an unmarked car and explained that they wanted Anton to help them figure out what had happened to Ryan.

Anton’s mother recalls the conversation that went on in the car:

“Did you see the body?” one of officers asked, peering into the back seat.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Who was there when you saw the body?” the officer asked.

“All the police,” said Anton, which suggested that he had seen the body when everyone else in the neighborhood had, as crowds gathered around the yellow crime-scene tape and watched police scour the weed-choked yard. At first, according to the police report, Anton said Jake had led him to the crime scene; later, he, too, changed his story and said he had been led by two older boys. Some would say the continually changing stories should have hinted to the detectives that the boys were not mature enough to provide reliable accounts, because small children may say almost anything to get out of an uncomfortable situation. But to police, when a suspect changes his story, it often means he has something to hide.

Anton’s mother continues her account of the conversation:

“Did you know the little girl?” one of the officers asked.

“Yeah.”

“What did you think of her?”

“She was pretty.”

“Did you see who hit her?”

The police report says Anton nodded and said “yes,” but Anton’s mother, a strongly determined woman with a round face and a cheerful smile, insists the police report is wrong. She says she stopped her son before he replied.

“Don’t answer that,” she snapped at her son. Then she told the police: “If he don’t have a lawyer present you can’t ask him questions like that.”

If Anton did say “yes,” an obvious question presents itself: Why didn’t the officers ask the boy who hit Ryan? The police report doesn’t say.

When the back-seat interview was almost done, the officers spotted the speeding car of a burglary suspect and roared through Englewood in pursuit, with Anton and his mother still in the back seat. The detectives caught the alleged burglar, then called for backup so another set of officers could take the man to jail and the detectives could take Anton and his mother home.

In a sense, though, Anton’s ride had only just begun.

 

The typical police interrogation room is usually windowless, with an uncomfortable metal bench for the suspect, a chair for his interrogator, and a hook where the suspect can be handcuffed to the wall. This is often the last stop before a suspect enters the judicial system, the place where countless fates are sealed under a shroud of secrecy. That much is unlikely to change, even if homicide investigators are required to videotape confessions, as some local officials are promising will happen in the wake of the Ryan Harris case. During interrogation, detectives might lie to you, they might deceive you, they might threaten you, or they might hit you; they might holler in your right ear and whisper in your left; they might ply you with soft drinks (7-Up seems to be the favorite among drug addicts going through withdrawal), or they might deny you sleep. Most of the time, they will nod their heads and listen with apparent empathy as you tangle yourself in a web of lies. The interrogation offers a police officer his best chance to shape the outcome of a case, to operate free from scrutiny, and to apply the law as he sees fit, based on his instinct, experience, and sense of fair play. A good detective is a lot like a good salesman, a fast-talking huckster with the heart of a con man who knows how to read his customer, quickly surmises what his customer wants to hear, and knows how to close the deal. “It’s really just a sales job,” says one veteran violent crimes detective. “But instead of selling condos in Florida you’re selling cells in the state penitentiary.”

Prosecutors say the confession is the single most powerful tool for putting away criminals. But one new study by two of the nation’s leading experts on confession evidence suggests that police and prosecutors might be abusing that power. The experts, both from the University of California — Richard Ofshe of Berkeley and Richard Leo of Irvine — looked at 60 court cases in which confessions were the only evidence tying suspects to their crimes. They studied dubious cases, in which prosecutors had little or no evidence beyond a confession with which to build a case. In more than half the cases, actually, prosecutors, judges, and juries were presented with strong evidence that the suspect who had confessed could not possibly have been guilty. Nevertheless, in the cases that went to trial, 73 percent of all suspects were convicted.

“The confession is not [merely] powerful,” Ofshe says. “It’s awesome.”

In another recent study, psychology professors at the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Nebraska tested a mild form of the “good cop, bad cop” routine on children between the ages of five and seven. They discovered that about half the children could be led into making false statements when adults praised them for “yes” answers and expressed disappointment or disbelief for “no” answers.

Big city police officers should be well accustomed by now to extracting confessions from young people. In fact, murder suspects in Chicago seem to be getting younger all the time. In February 1998, a 12-year-old South Side boy was charged in a double murder that police described as a gang initiation (the case is still pending in juvenile court). In 1994, two 12-year-olds were convicted of murder for dropping five-year-old Eric Morse from a public housing high-rise. Earlier that same year, 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was accused of murder, but he was killed, apparently by a member of his own gang, before his case could be tried. In 1997, 18-year-olds were Chicago’s biggest killers, accounting for about one in every seven homicides, according to city statistics. Teenagers committed more than a third of all the city’s murders.

“The 12- and 13-year-old boys you see on the West Side are going on 20,” says one veteran detective who works on the West Side. “With some of these kids, looking in their eyes is like looking into sharks’ eyes. There’s no feeling there. You got kids doing burglaries at 8 or 9 and kids who start shooting at 12 or 13.” Some Chicago cops were not terribly surprised when the two Englewood boys were charged. It was only a matter of devolution, they seemed to say.

As any parent or schoolteacher knows, talking to a seven-year-old is enormously different from talking to a 17-year-old. But Ofshe, a social psychologist, says police usually apply the same tactics whether they are interviewing children or adults. “And the methods they use slide easily into coercion,” he says. “A seven-year-old would be child’s play. If you’re willing to threaten him, even mildly, he’ll say anything you want.” Some of the detectives interviewed for this article confirmed that they interrogate children the same way they do adults. They said they never threaten, though. They simply let the juveniles tell their stories, listen closely for inconsistencies, then poke holes in their lies. “Essentially, there’s no difference,” says one detective. “It’s just that you like to have a parent present if you can. . . . These are not suburban kids from the 1950s. These are pretty sophisticated kids.”

But experts in psychology and juvenile justice say young children must be treated differently, no matter how sophisticated they may seem or how fiendish their alleged crimes may be. Dr. Thomas Grisso, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and one of the nation’s leading experts on police interrogations of juveniles, has collected data on more than 300 police interviews with children. As juvenile crime rates have climbed for the past two decades and children have been charged with more serious crimes, Grisso says, police seem to have grown weary of obeying the laws aimed at protecting young suspects. Children are being taken from their beds and interviewed in the middle of the night, when they are tired and disoriented; they are being questioned without having their parents in the room; and they are being given Miranda warnings that some of them cannot possibly understand.

Even when parents are allowed in the interrogation room, most children still feel tremendous stress, he says, and parents don’t help matters. About 2 percent of parents make the right move, Grisso says: They tell their children not to talk without an attorney present. About 16 percent encourage their children to talk to the detectives. The overwhelming majority of parents (71 percent) don’t do anything, thus allowing their children to talk. “They’re almost as scared as the child is,” Grisso says, “and in some cases the parents are actually adding to the coercive effect. They think they’re teaching their children to respect authority or take responsibility. Those are good principles, but under the circumstances they present a great risk to the child because it does cause some kids to admit to things they have not done or to admit to a greater role than they actually played.”

Most children under 14 do not understand the consequences of a confession and will likely confess to almost anything if it seems to please the interviewer. “They’re not thinking about a trial,” Grisso says. “They’re thinking, How can I get back to my own home?

 

“Mama, I wanna go, Mama, I wanna go, Mama, I wanna go,” eight-year-old Jake murmured in a low, tired song of sorrow as sunset approached the Wentworth Area police station. It had been hours since the detectives had fed him a Quarter Pounder and fries. Now he was angry, tired, and confused. It was very nearly his bedtime.

“Don’t worry,” his mother told him. “We’re fixing to wrap everything up. Don’t worry.”

She believed it, too.

The long day had begun at about two in the afternoon on Sunday, August 9, when a detective in an unmarked car came to the house and asked Jake’s mother if she and her son would go to the station so Jake could look at pictures of suspects. She said they would do anything they could to help.

When they arrived at the Wentworth Area station, Jake and his mother were asked to wait in a small room with no windows and no phone. And there they sat for about an hour, until a detective finally came in and asked the boy if he wanted some candy. Jake said yes, and the detective gave him a few watermelon-flavored suckers. He ate one and put the rest in his pocket. Another hour passed; then a detective returned and asked if Jake and his mother were hungry. Jake said yes again, and a few minutes later, the detective returned with hamburgers for both of them. Jake ate quickly, but his mother, a petite woman with her hair pulled back tight, turned down the food. She didn’t know the police were busy interviewing Anton, trying to get information from one boy that might be useful in interviewing the other. Nevertheless, she was beginning to get angry.

When Jake finished his meal, the detective said he wanted to take the eight-year-old to another room. Jake’s mother says she didn’t know she had a legal right to accompany her son during the interview, and she certainly didn’t know that the law required police to make a good faith effort to have a parent present whenever a child was interviewed. Nevertheless, she says, she did ask the officer if she could accompany her son. “He told me it was just a few pictures and some questions and I didn’t have to go,” she recalls. Unaware her son was a murder suspect, she saw no harm in letting him talk. Meanwhile, Jake’s father had returned from work that afternoon and learned his son was with the police. When he went to the station to see what was going on, he says, police would not permit him to enter the detectives’ bureau. “They put me out,” the boy’s father says. “Three or four police officers walked me out of the building.” Police have declined to answer any questions related to the case, citing their ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, two detectives took Jake into the lineup room, according to the police report. The boy told them that he had been riding bikes with Ryan Harris on the grounds of Robeson High School when two black men in a red car picked her up and put her bike in the trunk. He also said that Anton and an older boy had taken him to see Ryan’s body before police arrived, and when they found her Ryan was naked and had “something in her mouth.” Jake repeated the story for two more detectives. He was gone about an hour; then he and his mother were reunited in the room with no phone and no window, where they sat for two more hours.

“I asked him what the police were doing in there with him and he said they were asking him some questions and showing him some pictures,” Jake’s mother says. “I asked him again, trying to find out more, and he got mad at me, so I left him alone. He was tired. He was getting upset and he wanted to go home. He was getting hungry again and it was past his dinnertime.”

When the detectives at last returned, they said they needed to talk to Jake one more time. They told his mother that Jake and Anton were telling different stories about what happened, and they wanted to make sure they had it straight. “Strictly routine,” they assured her. Again, they said there was no reason for Jake’s mother to accompany her son. The report filed by the detectives said they had informed Jake and his mother of the boy’s Miranda rights, but Jake’s mother says she recalls no such thing.

This time the detectives took Jake to a room with computers and file cabinets, gave him a can of soda, and questioned him for 40 minutes, according to police reports. The detectives tried to tell Jake, who was hungry and tired, that anything he said could be brought out in court, that court was a place where people decided if you were good or bad, that he could have a lawyer, and that a lawyer is someone who protects you if you’ve done something bad. Jake said he wanted to keep talking to the detectives.

While she waited outside the room, Jake’s mother spotted Anton’s grandmother on the second floor of the police station and walked toward her, hoping to commiserate about her long ordeal. But before the two women could talk, detectives separated them.

Even then, it never occurred to Jake’s mother that her son was being investigated for murder. She’s ashamed to admit it now, because it seems so obvious, but she was tired and annoyed, and not experienced in the operation of a police investigation.

“The police were being so friendly,” she says. “They were being so nice.”

 

Today’s detective relies on psychology more than brute force or bright lights to win confessions. Chicago Police Department even sends its detectives to seminars to hear from psychologists who have studied the secrets of successful interrogations. At these seminars, officers are reminded that U.S. courts have excluded from evidence confessions that were elicited by beatings, threats of harm, prolonged isolation, or the deprivation of food or sleep. But they are also reminded that more subtly coercive techniques are not only acceptable, but important to doing a good job. In 1962, former Northwestern University professor Fred Inbau published Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, which, several revisions later, remains the most popular manual of its kind.

Inbau’s book says interrogators should wear civilian clothes and sit in a bare, soundproofed room far from any familiar sights and sounds. The goal is to make the suspect feel isolated, uncomfortable, and out of control. The room should have no windows, the suspect’s chair should have no arms, and the detective should be seated in a taller chair. Inbau says the interrogator should begin by confronting the suspect with his guilt, then interrupt all statements of denial and knock down his factual, emotional, or moral objections to the charge. As the suspect grows weary, the interrogator should begin to show sympathy, perhaps offer a face-saving explanation for the charges (“Were you using drugs? Is that why you acted crazy? . . . Did your partner put this idea in your head?"), then persuade the suspect to recount the details of the crime. The psychology is simple: Denial brings the detective’s wrath, while self-incrimination seems to earn his sympathy.

“Honest to God, it’s not like it was 20 years ago when you beat the crap out of everybody,” says one veteran detective. “Guy stole a car, you give him a crack. Guy led you on a chase, ran you through a bunch of red lights, put your life at risk, got your adrenaline pumping, you give him a crack. It was a given. You’d walk into the room and the guy would sit there like this [he turns his head away] because he knew you were gonna give him a crack. And if you didn’t, they’d think you were soft.”

But times have changed, the detective says. Now detectives have learned to be patient, especially with the growing population of young suspects and gangbangers, who can usually be persuaded to sell out their friends. “There is no loyalty among thieves,” the detective says. When police have two suspects, they will bring them in together and put them in separate rooms. They will tell each one that they’re mostly interested in the other, encouraging each to help his own cause by providing evidence against his friend. It’s the classic prisoner’s dilemma: Both will probably talk because each fears being hung out to dry by his partner. “He’ll break like an egg,” the detective says. “I’ve done that a thousand times.”

Suspected criminals, like everyone else, feel most comfortable when the person they’re speaking to sits directly across from them, makes eye contact, nods his head, and offers gentle words of assurance. The interrogator’s job, quite often, is to make the suspect uncomfortable, anxious, or perturbed. One detective says he likes to bark in the right ear when he’s angry and speak calmly in the left when offering consolation. Young suspects, in particular, have short attention spans, and they get easily annoyed, so police let them sit awhile without food, cigarettes, sleep, or TV. Then two detectives will enter the interrogation room and take turns talking to the suspect, forcing him to look back and forth, jerking him around like a yo-yo. When annoying a suspect doesn’t work, the cops sometimes try silence. Some people would rather confess a crime than stare at a quiet cop.

When a suspect refuses to admit his part in a crime and detectives are convinced of his guilt, the investigators occasionally resort to trickery. Sometimes their scams are so ludicrous that it’s hard to imagine anyone would fall for them — but, as one cop says, “we’re not dealing with a lot of Phi Beta Kappas.” In one reliable trick, detectives write the word “LIE” in black Magic Marker on a piece of paper and load it into the feeder tray of the photocopy machine. They’ll place the suspect’s hand on the copy machine’s glass, ask him one more time if he committed the crime, and push the “copy” button as he makes his denial. Gullible suspects, confronted with this high-tech “proof” of their lie, often confess.

A former assistant state’s attorney tells another story. When police were struggling to get a confession from a suspected rapist, they told him that the prints from his penis would likely be found on the victim’s vagina. Penis prints work precisely the same way as fingerprints, they said; no two are alike. When the man still refused to confess, the police asked him to press his penis on an ink pad and make a print on a piece of paper. Thirty minutes later they returned and said they had a match. The man confessed.

Those stories may sound farcical, and perhaps cruel, but they strike at an important point: Police and prosecutors know that nothing — not even eyewitness testimony — sways a jury more strongly than a confession. They know, too, that they are legally permitted to lie, trick, and deceive, so long as their stunts don’t cross the line into coercion. And there is no clear line. They also know that if they go too far they have much to gain and very little to lose. The suspect might be released, but he probably would have been released anyway had he not confessed.

“The fact is, the system tacitly condones police going too far,” says R. Eugene Pincham, a former judge and one of the lawyers who represented Jake. “The only consequence when a prosecutor has the courage to say police have gone too far is that the confession is not used. How often do you see an officer reprimanded?”

 

Anton’s mother and father were both working that Sunday morning when the detectives stopped by to see if they could ask the boy a few questions. Anton’s grandmother greeted the detectives and told them they would have to wait if they wanted to talk to the boy, because she was getting ready to take him to church. Anton was already dressed in his black pants, purple dress shirt, and black tie, and the family was on its way out the door. She promised to stop by the police station after church.

Anton’s mother was the first to get off work. When she got home, she heard that her son was at the police station being questioned about the Ryan Harris murder. By the time she reached the station at about seven that night, her son and her mother had already been there for hours. The boy’s father arrived soon after, but he says he was not allowed upstairs to join his wife and son until much later, when the detectives were all but done. Before either of Anton’s parents arrived, his grandmother gave the detectives permission to talk to the boy alone, according to the police report.

Two detectives took Anton into the lieutenant’s office, a small room with a
desk, chairs, and filing cabinets, and left the door open. The boy’s grandmother could see inside but couldn’t hear anything. They began with small talk, asking about his favorite sport, what he liked to do, and whether he was looking forward to school.

“Do you know the difference between the truth and a lie?” a detective asked.

“You should never lie,” the boy said, according to the police report.

“Good boys only tell the truth,” the detective said. “Are you a good boy?”

“Yes,” he answered.

One detective held the boy’s right hand and the other held his left, “because we’re all friends,” as one detective said.

The detectives showed the boy a blown-up photo of Ryan smiling a big-toothed smile. With almost no further questioning, police reported, Anton admitted that he had thrown a rock that hit Ryan in the head and knocked her off her bike. He went on to say that he and Jake each had grabbed one of Ryan’s arms, dragged her into the weeds, and began to “play with her soft,” removing her panties, shoving them into her mouth, rubbing her body with leaves, and stuffing more leaves into her nose. Then the boys took the girl’s bicycle and hid it in the weeds by the railroad track. The boys never described the color of Ryan’s panties, the size of the rock that had hit the girl, or what kind of shirt she had been wearing.

Once they had the confession, detectives summoned two youth officers to explain Anton’s Miranda rights. According to Illinois law, the youth officer is supposed to act as “an interested adult” or a “substitute parent” when a child’s parents are not available during an interrogation, and police are supposed to make the youth officer available “as soon as possible.”

“[The seven-year-old] said he understood each of his rights and said he wanted to talk further,” the report stated. Anton repeated his story for the youth officer, but explained in further detail how he and Jake had removed Ryan’s panties together, and that he alone had stuffed the panties down her throat and shoved the leaves up her nose. Detectives brought Anton a Happy Meal, and he ate it as he talked. When the interrogation was over, the detectives greeted Anton’s family. “Here’s the situation,” one of the officers explained to Anton’s mother. “He said the boys were having a rock fight, [and Anton] threw a rock that hit the little girl. She fell off her bike, they left her there, and then they ran.”

Anton’s mother, not one to be pushed around, told the detectives the story did not make sense. Her mind raced: Everyone in the neighborhood knew Ryan’s death appeared to be a sex crime, and from what she’d read in the paper the crime had been brutally violent. There was no way that her little boy, who still wasn’t allowed to cross some heavily trafficked streets in the neighborhood and, she thought, had never broken his parents’ rule, could have done such things.

But the detectives said it wasn’t a sex crime after all, and it was perhaps not as violent as they had originally believed. Anton’s mother had the feeling that the police were trying to make the crime sound less serious so the boy would go along with what they said. “It was just an accident; don’t be mad at [your son],” she recalls one of the officers telling her. But something didn’t sound right. “First you tell me my son killed somebody; then you tell me not to be mad at him,” she said to herself at the time. She wanted to talk to Anton, wanted to get him out of the police station, away from these men she didn’t trust, and find out what the detectives had been saying to the boy. But the police weren’t quite through with him.

“That’s when I told them they couldn’t talk to him unless he had an attorney present,” Anton’s mother says. “That’s when they stopped being nice.” They marched off and called for an assistant state’s attorney. The state’s attorney arrived a few minutes later and asked for permission to ask Anton a few more questions, but the boy’s mother was not fooled. She knew the difference between a defense attorney and a prosecutor. Eventually, she got to see her son.

The next hour was dreamlike for the mother, filled with phrases half overheard and conversations whispered just beyond her reach. Anton drifted in and out of sleep, woke once and asked to go to the bathroom (he was allowed to go with a police escort). She heard someone talking about the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). She heard someone else saying something about Hartgrove, and she wondered who or what that was. If Ryan’s death was “just an accident,” she wondered, why was it taking so long to complete the report and send them home?

Finally, sometime after ten that night, the detectives came back and said they needed Anton to go with them one more time. They promised not to ask him any questions and said he wouldn’t need a lawyer, but they didn’t say where they were taking him. When Anton returned, about 30 minutes later, he was using a wet paper towel to wipe black ink off his hand, and that’s when it finally hit his mother: Her son was accused of murder. He had just been fingerprinted.

 

There were dozens of reasons why police should have sensed something wrong with their case against these two little boys. To begin with, the children’s stories were in conflict and constantly changing, like the back-and-forth he-said-she-saids of a pair of tattletales. But more important, the physical details of the crime scene made it difficult to believe that anyone looking at the facts objectively could be convinced they had killed her. Even before the police charged Jake and Anton with the crime, a detective in the Wentworth Area station phoned the medical examiner’s office to ask if Ryan’s death could have been caused by a hurled rock. The doctor who performed the autopsy said no, Ryan had been beaten with a larger, heavier object, and she had been struck with tremendous force, creating a one-inch-long skull fracture. The doctor also said she had been struck while she was lying down.

At this point, the detectives might have concluded that the boys didn’t know what had really happened, that their imaginations were more powerful than their statements. Instead, they decided both Jake and Anton knew what had happened but had lied. Then, according to the detectives’ own notes, it appears they made several more assumptions. If Anton’s rock hadn’t killed Ryan, the murder weapon must have been the bloody brick by the girl’s side. But if Anton alone could not have killed Ryan, who had? The report said this: “Due to the combined knowledge that the victim had been lying on the ground at the time she had sustained her head injury and taking into account [Anton’s] physical stature, it would render it impossible that he, acting alone, could have accomplished the task of knocking Ryan Harris off her bike, holding her down and striking her in the head with a house brick.” Translation: Jake and Anton had done it together.

Never mind that they had no motive (Jake and Anton both had bikes of their own, and even if they did want Ryan’s bike, there was no evidence to suggest they had taken it); never mind that they would have had a hard time riding their bikes in the weeds where the murder supposedly occurred; never mind that Ryan was a big tomboy, a foot taller than either of the boys, and probably could have whipped them both; never mind that there was no physical evidence linking the boys to the crime scene (the boys’ homes had never been searched for bloody clothing or for Ryan’s bike); never mind that several witnesses told police they had seen Ryan with a man in a baseball cap on the day she was killed; never mind that Ryan’s body had all the markings of a sex crime; and never mind that the lab had not yet tested Ryan’s panties for semen (police may have been swayed by the absence of semen in her vagina, and they seemed to suspect that the boys had torn Ryan’s vaginal wall with some sort of stick or tube) — the detectives had made a decision, according to their report: “[Jake] now had become a second offender in this homicide investigation.”

At about 11 p.m. that Sunday night, the boys were finally reunited with their parents, and a youth officer broke the news.

“Well, your son is going to be charged with first-degree murder,” Jake’s mother recalls hearing. The police explained that Jake had changed his story and admitted knowledge of the crime scene that only a participant in the crime could have had. But as the eight-year-old listened to the officer, he began to protest.

“I didn’t tell them that, Mama,” he said, as his mother recollects.

When the police explained that Jake had seen Anton shove Ryan’s panties down her throat, Jake protested again.

“He didn’t do that, because that’s nasty,” the boy said, exasperated. “It didn’t go like that, Mama.”

The officer continued, and so did Jake.

“Mama, I didn’t say that,” he repeated several times.

Jake’s mother objected: “No, he can’t be charged with murder, because you men have been telling me since 2:30 this afternoon my son was not being charged, that he was only here to help, and he was going home with me. We bring him down here to cooperate and this is what we get?” By the end of her outburst, she was screaming and crying, angry and scared.

The boys’ parents were asked to sign forms sending their children to Hartgrove Hospital, a West Side psychiatric center. When the parents resisted, the detectives said their only other option was to call a social worker from DCFS. Their children had been formally charged with murder, and they would be taken into the custody of the state if the parents didn’t sign. If there was anything these parents feared more than the police, it was DCFS.

By midnight, the papers had been signed and the two families loaded into separate cars for the ride to Hartgrove. Jake rested in his mother’s arms while his father told him a string of lies.

“I was trying to convince him he was going home,” Jake’s father says. “I was telling him he was going to be in the hospital for one night, trying to keep him from being upset. I was telling him we’d be back the next day to pick him up.”

Anton, too, seemed confused.

“Dad, where I’m going?” the boy mumbled.

“I don’t know,” his father said. “But you’re gonna be all right.”

Anton slept most of the way to the hospital, and even when he woke up the next day he wasn’t sure where he was or what he was doing there. He was still saying the same thing he’d said all along — that he wanted to go home.

 

Even now, lawyers for Jake and Anton say they don’t know what, if anything, connects the boys to Ryan Harris. They don’t know if the boys saw some part of the crime, or if they came across the body before police roped off the area, or if they saw nothing at all and invented their statements based on suggestions from the police. They‘re not even sure if the boys threw rocks at Ryan, or if that, too, was something spawned during the back-and-forth with the detectives. They don’t trust the police reports to tell them what really happened during the interrogations.

“In Chicago, there is no window to what goes on in the interrogation room,” says Steven Drizin, an attorney at the Northwestern University Legal Clinic. “So every case boils down to a swearing contest between seasoned detectives and defendants, and the seasoned detectives almost always win, especially when the defendants are children.”

Catherine Ferguson and Elizabeth Tarzia are the public defenders who represented Anton. Ferguson says the detectives should have worked harder to confirm the boys’ so-called confessions before filing charges and turning their lives upside down. They should have known that a child’s testimony can be shaky and waited to see if physical evidence supported their case. After all, the children were not likely to skip town. They also should have insisted that the parents, a youth officer, and an attorney be present during the questioning so no one could challenge the boys’ statements. These boys, Ferguson says, were not legally old enough to drink, drive, file a lawsuit, join the military, vote, consent to medical treatment, or even ride some of the roller coasters at Great America. So why should they be able to forfeit their right to an attorney, without an attorney’s advice, when they could not begin to understand the impact of such a decision?

A few states have recently begun experimenting with strict new laws to protect juvenile defendants. In Minnesota, juveniles cannot waive their right to an attorney. In some states, children 14 and under are not allowed to waive their right to an attorney at least until they have met with one. In New Mexico, statements made by children under 13 can never be used against them in court; that puts the burden on police to find hard evidence before filing charges against children. Other states now insist that interrogations be conducted only by specially trained youth officers who understand that children have limited vocabularies and might easily be victimized by leading questions. In these interviews, detectives and prosecutors are required to watch through one-way windows. Some states have also begun videotaping confessions by both juveniles and adults. That action, perhaps the simplest of all reforms, can go a long way toward reducing the number of false confessions.

In Chicago, the Cook County state’s attorney has proposed several new procedures in response to the handling of the Ryan Harris ease. Under the proposals, the state’s attorney’s office and the police department would videotape confessions in all murder cases, unless a suspect said he didn’t want to be taped. State’s attorneys would also begin reviewing evidence before murder charges were filed against juveniles to make sure the police had a strong enough case. The office has also agreed to establish a commission to study whether children under ten can understand Miranda rights and aid in their own defense when they are charged with crimes. No date has been set yet for the start of the reforms, but already critics are saying the reforms don’t go far enough.

For one thing, videotaping confessions probably won’t change the fundamental dynamics of the interrogation, according to those who have studied videotaped confessions in other cities. Cops will still play their games. They’ll still lie, trick, and threaten. But they will do all those things before the camera starts rolling. Even good cops, the ones who conduct artful, persuasive, and perfectly legal interrogations, don’t trust juries to understand that crime solving is sometimes done by the dogged pursuit of witnesses and sometimes by deception and intimidation.

Some detectives also fear the cameras will discourage confessions. “I don’t like it,” says one veteran investigator. “And it’s not because the camera’s going to show some guy getting his ass kicked. It’s the same thing as bringing a court reporter to take a confession. A guy will tell you what happened when it’s just the two of you in a room together, but when you come in with a stenograph machine, he starts thinking, ‘You know what? This doesn’t look too good.’ If you’re on a roll and you change the whole setting, it’s gonna clam him up. . . .”

Jake and Anton were interrogated by at least four detectives during their long day at the Wentworth Area station, and sometimes they found themselves surrounded by five or six unfamiliar adults at one time. One of them, Detective James Cassidy, faced scrutiny about four years ago, after he had arrested an 11-year-old boy in the murder of his 83-year-old neighbor. Though a bloody palm print and a bloody partial footprint were not his, the boy was convicted on the basis of his confession. Lawyers are challenging his conviction. Other than that disputed case, the detectives working on the Ryan Harris murder had clean records and good reputations, for the most part. It seems unlikely, their fellow officers say, that the men were engaged in a grand conspiracy to put these kids behind bars. In fact, very few cops are willing to jeopardize their careers to make a case, even for a high-profile murder that might get them a favorable headline or two.

Since Cassidy and the other detectives aren’t talking, it’s impossible to reconstruct their logic. Perhaps they placed too much reliance on bits of evidence that suggested the boys had been involved. Cops and prosecutors interviewed for this story declined to speculate on what happened at the Wentworth Area station that night, but all too often, they said, when a cop gets a confession — even if he knows it’s shaky — he will make the arrest, close the case, and assume the truth will emerge somewhere down the line. Some of the lawyers for Jake and Anton say the boys were framed. But it’s also possible that the detectives made a more innocent though equally tragic mistake. Maybe these cops who had grown accustomed to dealing with hardened criminals and shark-eyed teens failed to appreciate just how capricious a child’s testimony can be. Once they became convinced the boys were killers, convincing Jake and Anton was easy.

Jake and Anton spent four nights at the Hartgrove facility They underwent psychiatric examinations and made two court appearances. Their legs dangled above the floor as they sat for hours in court while judges and prosecutors contemplated what to do with them. They fidgeted, nearly fell asleep, and quietly
drew pictures with some of the courtroom sketch artist’s markers. At one point both boys were crying so much the judge stopped the hearing and asked the boys’ mothers to stand with their children. But sheriffs warned the women not to touch their boys. After the hearings, they were sent home with custom-made electronic monitoring anklets.

Three more weeks passed before lab tests finally came back on Ryan’s panties, shattering the case against the boys. Charges have been dropped, but officials refuse to rule out that the boys were somehow involved. When the lab checked the DNA found on the panties, it nearly matched that of a man named Eddie Durr, who was already in prison and part of the state’s DNA database. Investigators suspected that the DNA would probably match one of his relatives, and it did: Floyd M. Durr, 29, who had already been charged with sexually assaulting three young girls in Englewood last year. Floyd Durr’s DNA made a perfect match, and a witness said she had seen Ryan with Durr hours before the girl was reported missing. Durr has reportedly told police that he found Ryan’s body and masturbated at the scene after she had already been killed. As unlikely as that sounds, police still had not charged Durr as Chicago went to press.

Andre M. Grant, one of the lawyers for Jake, speculates that police and prosecutors continue to insist the boys might have been involved because they don’t want to fully admit their mistake. Perhaps the admission will come, he says, after the families file civil suits against the police department.

The boys have been deeply damaged, Grant says.

Jake’s grades have dropped from mostly A’s to mostly D’s, his mother says. He can’t watch his favorite horror movies anymore. He wets his bed. He wakes in the middle of the night with bad dreams and runs screaming into his parents’ room. Even in broad daylight, he thinks he’s being watched.

“He’s petrified,” says his mother. “Especially by police. You better not joke with him no more about being a police officer. That’s a no-no in our house.”

Anton goes to a new school now, where only his principal, teacher, and counselor know what happened to him. On his first day of school last autumn, Anton refused to enter the building, in part because the imposing structure reminded him of the Wentworth Area police station. He clung to his mother’s leg and sobbed. They went home.

Another day, he was watching television and saw a report about the ongoing investigation into the death of Ryan Harris. The television flashed an artist’s sketch showing Jake and Anton as they appeared in court last summer, Chicago’s two youngest murder suspects. Their faces had been erased, but Anton still recognized his own fat, blue-tipped braids.

He got up from in front of the TV, grabbed a pair of scissors, and silently began to cut them off.

He didn’t want to be that boy.

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