Terrill Swift's experience as a 17-year old shows how Illinois could lead nation in overturned convictions

You can deny the crime and die in jail with a 100-year sentence. Or you can cooperate and go home tonight.

Those were the options laid out for then-17-year-old Terrill Swift in 1994, after being accused of the rape and murder of 30-year-old Nina Glover in Englewood.

After hours of interrogation and ultimatums, Swift signed a full confession for a crime he didn’t commit.

“You put a kid in a situation he’s never been in, who is naïve, not aware of his rights…nine out of ten kids will cooperate,” Swift said. “That’s the trickery that was played with me.”

Fourteen years after his conviction, Swift was exonerated based on DNA evidence that implicated another man. He became the 100th recorded person to be cleared of a wrongful conviction in Illinois.

Illinois leads all other states with 103 recorded exonerations, and Cook County has the most among counties with 78, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, the most comprehensive listing of exonerated crimes across the U.S.

Researchers hope the list, which documents roughly 2,000 cases since 1989 and was created by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School and the University of Michigan Law School, will reveal trends in wrongful convictions that will help change the practices that put innocent people like Swift behind bars.

But just because Illinois tops the list doesn't mean we're more likely than elsewhere to wrongfully convict or exonerate people.

“I think we’ve done a better job of identifying exoneration cases in Illinois,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center.

Nearly 68 percent of the Illinois cases were  murder charges. Sexual assault cases were a distant second, making up 13 percent of recorded exonerations. Nationwide, rape and homicide make up 83 percent of the recorded exonerations, but only 2 percent of felony convictions.

“The exonerations we know about tell us something about the ones we have missed,” the report said. “The problems that cause false convictions are hardly limited to rape and murder.”

Perjury or false accusation is the most common factor contributing to wrongful conviction, involved in 63 percent of Illinois cases.

The numbers show that courts are rarely willing to reconsider a case, even when key witnesses withdraw or change their earlier testimony. Witnesses have recanted in 17 Illinois exonerations, yet only one of those was the reason for the court’s eventual reversal.

“The presumption that the trial testimony is correct should be replaced with the fact that the recantation is correct,” Warden said.

False confessions like Swift's account for 37 percent of the documented cases, but Warden suggests it’s closer to half when considering the 17 co-defendants that were implicated as a result. These confessions can come after outright torture, like the infamous 1993 Jon Burge case, or more subtle, yet equally coercive, tactics.

“[After] the Burge scandal, Cook County is fairly notorious for wrongful convictions,” said Ron Fredrickson, the Center's research coordinator. “[But] misconduct happens all over the country.”

Official misconduct was involved in 76 percent of Illinois false confessions, and 60 percent of recorded Illinois exonerations overall. Across the country, official misconduct was mentioned in 42 percent of cases. Only 16 percent of exonerations involved false confessions.

Once a confession is recorded, it can eclipse any contrary evidence. “When juries hear there is a confession, virtually nothing else matters,” Warden said.

In Swift’s case, his confession was used to convict him despite discrepancies between the crime report and his testimony.

Before declaring Swift guilty, Judge Thomas Sumner said: “Without the confession there is no case. What we have is 22 pages of detail that I either believe the defendant was told to say, or that he said because he was there. We have a 22-page confession and that is enough for me.”

Even after DNA tests revealed Swift’s innocence, prosecutors were reluctant to reverse the ruling based on his previous confession.

Illinois has made some headway in reducing the likelihood of wrongful conviction. In 2003, it became the first state to pass legislation that requires police departments to record all interrogation of suspects.

Thirteen other states have followed suit, and the state supreme court in six others have ruled in favor of the practice.

Warden hopes the registry will encourage similar changes in policy.

"The purpose is to find out what the factors are involved in wrongful convictions so we can use that as ammunition in the drive for reform."

-Christie Thompson

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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