Swift Justice In Question

By Gregory Cappis

Terrill Swift sat alone one evening at a metal desk in a windowless room. Law enforcement officials took turns emerging through a steel door and grilling him about a crime he said he knew nothing about. After sitting in the interrogation room for hours, Swift decided to confess to rape and murder. The exhausted 17-year-old was told he would be able to go home to his mother if he signed the confession, so he provided details given to him by detectives to the court reporter, he said.

Swift was released on parole in spring 2010 after serving 15 years. The 33-year-old is currently living with his mother in the golf-course-lined suburb of Woodridge. Large biceps attest to his time in prison where he passed time by working out, taking college classes and writing to various criminal defense attorneys.

His lawyer, Josh Tepfer of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, has been on the case for the past three years and has filed a motion for the state to vacate the convictions after learning DNA evidence links Johnny Douglas, an older man convicted of rape and murder, to the crime. This is the first step to getting Swift exonerated.

“When I first talked to [Tepfer], and when he first came to see me, I just broke down,” Swift said. “They were like, ‘Why are you so emotional?’ Because I’ve been waiting for so many years for someone to just take a look at this case. I didn’t do this.”

Although representatives of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office refused to comment on this case, they acknowledged they would respond to the motion to vacate on Sept. 14. The state can either oppose the motion or vacate the convictions.

“If the state does not oppose the motion, then there’s an agreement among the parties,” Tepfer said. Usually, the courts abide by that agreement, which leads to the conviction being expunged.

Exonerees in Illinois who served more than 14 years are eligible for compensation of $199,150, according to the Innocence Project.

Yet, even if the convictions are vacated, the state still has the opportunity to retry each individual.

Since being booked, Swift has consistently said he falsely confessed to the 1994 rape and murder of 30-year-old Nina Glover in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, where he was living at the time.

Glover, whom records describe as a prostitute, was found strangled to death in a dumpster at 7 a.m. on Nov. 7, 1994. A garbage man made the discovery behind 1400 W. Garfield Blvd., according to legal documents.

No evidence other than his confession, and those of his three co-defendants, linked Swift or the others to the crime, according to court documents.

“It was so stupid to sign a confession,” Swift said.

A document from the Innocence Project that references police reports states none of the boys had a violent history. At the time of the trial, DNA evidence extracted from Glover did not match any of the defendants, according to court documents.

This spring DNA testing proved the semen inside of Glover was from Douglas.

He pled guilty to the 1997 rape and murder of Gytonne Marsh. He was also at the crime scene when Glover’s body was discovered and was questioned by police, according to Tepfer. Douglas denied knowing anything to police.

“Of course he knew something,” Tepfer said. “His semen was inside her.”

In 2008, before Douglas was shot and killed at age 46 at his own parole party, he was charged with another murder of which he was later acquitted. He was a suspect in five other violent crimes, three of which involved strangulation, Tepfer said.

“This thing has a hold on me where, like I say, you can barely breathe,” Swift said.

He now writes to benefit others, such as the Dixmoor Five, and he is working on his own biography.

In a 1991 case alarmingly similar to Swift’s, five teenagers known as the Dixmoor Five were charged in the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl months after the crime. DNA evidence excluded the five teens in question, and two of the defendants have recanted their confessions, according to an Innocence Project report. Prosecutors have reopened the case after recent DNA testing linked a convicted rapist to the crime.

During a press conference on Aug. 30, ColorofChange.org, an African American civil rights group, presented more than 67,000 printouts of electronically submitted petitions from around the country that call for the state’s attorney to overturn the convictions of Swift, his co-defendants and the Dixmoor Five.

The state’s attorney released a statement on Aug. 30 stating its concern with any criminal case where DNA could prove a wrongful conviction.

False confessions were the only evidence against Swift and his co-defendants, Vincent Thames, Harold Richardson and Michael Saunders.

Coerced confessions played a role in 16 percent of America’s first 250 exoneration cases, according to Brandon Garrett, a false confessions expert and professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

“The biggest factor [leading to false confessions] is certain widespread interrogation techniques increasingly used by law enforcement,” said Alan Hirsch, an assistant professor of legal studies at Williams College and an expert on false confessions. “The problem isn’t that they’re ineffective, but that they’re too effective. Their purpose is to break guilty people down, but they’re so good that they can break innocent

people down.”

Swift testified that interrogation tactics, considered illegal by experts in the field, led him to falsely confess. Also, there are some discrepancies as to how he ultimately ended up inside the police interrogation room.

According to police reports, another teenager named Jerry Fincher voluntarily walked into the police station and gave information about Glover’s murder to help out a friend in custody on drug charges. Fincher changed his statement three times during the course of two days, according to reports. A judge later suppressed his confession, leading to a dropped case.

Upon taking Swift’s case, Tepfer conducted interviews with all the men involved and was told a much different story by Fincher, who said he was taken into custody by police.

“[Police] threatened to charge him with a drug case if he didn’t come with them, and he was coerced into confessing and implicating these other boys, and again he says he doesn’t know why any of these boys were brought up,” Tepfer said.

Swift admits he was a member of the Black P. Stones gang with his co-defendants. He compared their relationship to that of schoolchildren.

“You have your group of friends and you see other students, but you don’t know them,” Swift said. “I saw them in the area, but we never hung out. We had no relationship at all prior to being incarcerated.”

Swift and his family claim they were lied to during their initial interaction with police on March 9, 1995. Swift said police called his mother and told her they were looking for him because he was hiding a person of interest. They told his father they were looking for him regarding an auto theft, he said.

After meeting with police at his father’s house and agreeing to go to the station for more questioning, Swift said he and his family were lied to once again. Police told his father and uncle—who were going to trail the police car transporting Swift—that they were taking him to the police station at 35th Street and Lowe Avenue. The police officers took Swift to 51st Street and Wentworth Street.

After arriving at the police station, Swift said he found himself in a desolate interrogation room, suffering from a mental beating. The detectives played the standard game of “Good Cop/Bad Cop,” he said.

The “Good Cop/Bad Cop” routine is perfectly legal and used often, according to James Wedick, a former FBI agent, who specializes in interrogation and runs the website FBIExpert.com. However, Swift claims he was a victim of other illegal interrogation practices, including a violation of his Miranda rights.

During his hearing, Swift testified that police told him to put himself at the scene of the crime, and told him the rotation of defendants taking turns in the raping, according to court documents.

Police are not allowed to relay specific details, Garrett said.

He said the only way to be sure this isn’t happening is to videotape the entire


Illinois has required such taping in murder cases since 2004.

If the law had been in effect in 1995, Swift’s allegations of inappropriate behavior could have been proven true or false.

“I requested an attorney and to speak with my family,” Swift said. “It didn’t stop. Finally after so much, I just said, ‘OK you’re going to let me go home. I’ll sign,’ and that’s how it went.”

The Miranda rights state a suspect has the right to an attorney.

“If an individual requests a lawyer, the interrogation should stop immediately,” Wedick said. “The statement the agents have taken will not be allowed to be introduced at a trial.”

Wedick, who said he has conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interrogations offered his professional opinion of delivering false promises to suspects.

“You can’t promise a defendant something that’s not true,” he said. “You can’t make false promises with the hope of getting someone to say something because it’s going to be a lie. There’s no room in the justice system for that conversation where cops or prosecutors promise something in exchange for a sentence and then make statements like, don’t say this in front of the judge.”

Swift said he was promised that if he followed through on his deal with detectives, he would be able to go home to his mother.

“Initially [the confession] was written,” Swift said. “Later on, they came with the stenographer, or the court reporter, and like I said, they fed me everything that I needed to know, basically. She asked me, ‘Was I promised anything?’ I told her ‘no’ because I didn’t want to break the deal that I had going with the police and the state’s attorney.”

After signing the confession, Swift was booked and sent to the Cook County Courthouse, 2600 S. California Ave., the next day. He was convicted of rape and murder in May 1998 and sentenced to 36 years based solely on his confession.

Judge Thomas Sumner presided over Swift’s case in 1998. According to court records, during the hearing he said: “Well this case is relatively simple. It’s all confession. Without the confession there is no case. There is no physical evidence that links the defendant to the case. There is no other testimony that links him to the case. It’s the confession. 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 and he knows and he knew what to say and he told the court reporter what happened. We have a 22-page confession, and that is enough for me. There will be a finding of guilty.”

Sumner was contacted for this story and refused to comment on

the case. He said he didn’t remember it.

“In a surprising number of cases of proven false confessions, the suspect explained that he confessed because he just

wanted to go home,” Hirsch said.

Swift said he confessed because he was told he would be able to go home if he did.

“I was naive to the fact that people get convicted for something they didn’t do,” he said. “I was never worried about being convicted because I knew I didn’t do it. So I’m like, ‘How long do I have to be in the county [jail]? I’m going to get acquitted anyway.’ I didn’t know until the judge said, ‘Guilty’.”