Wrongful conviction settlement could have gone to better use

By Gabrielle Rosas

Chicago is world-renowned for many different things, ranging from being the deep-dish pizza capital of the nation to being the sixth most miserable city in America, no thanks to Forbes magazine. Unfortunately, there are two more dirty little words associated with Chicago and its police detectives: coercive interrogation.

Last semester, The Chronicle followed the wrongful conviction case of Terrill Swift, a man who was convicted at 17 years old of a rape and murder neither he nor his three co-defendants committed. Swift and his co-defendants were interrogated for hours, then told by police that they could go home to their parents if they confessed to the crimes. All four confessed after mentally and emotionally breaking down. Swift was finally released on parole in spring 2010 and on Nov. 16, 2011, his and his co-defendants’ convictions were vacated.

Another recent wrongful conviction case similar to Swift’s has now led the city to compensate a second man $3.6 million after spending almost 10 years behind bars.

Police physically abused Robert Wilson and coerced him into confessing.  He was arrested for attempted murder in 1997, pardoned by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2008 and is now waiting for the final approval from the City Council.

Wow, Chicago. That is an extremely large sum of money residents will pay for the colossal screwup of the Chicago Police Department. Originally, Wilson asked for $10 million from the city, or approximately $1 million per year he served in prison. Yes, I do suppose paying less than half of that was a gift from Wilson and his lawyer.

But let’s be real. That money could have been used for just about anything else. Chicago Public Schools is facing an emotionally charged backlash from students, faculty and parents about school closings and consolidations.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced several initiatives that will require billions of dollars in funding, including his Public Space Capital plan, which is predicted to cost $290 million. While $3.6 million is only a fraction of that and a “relative bargain,” according to Leslie Darling, the Finance Committee’s first assistant corporation counsel, the fact that taxpayer money needed to be utilized in this way reflects poorly on the CPD.

It’s still money that could have been used to enhance the community, help the cash-strapped CPS system and improve Chicago Transit Authority stations—all issues Chicago has struggled with for months.

Don’t get me wrong. Wilson has every right to his $3.6 million. He lost a decade of his life based on false testimony and sneaky police tactics. What is even more upsetting is that an entire city suffered a monetary setback thanks to a corrupt few, a familiar theme in public policy and law enforcement in Chicago. The City Council and the CPD should take this as a serious wake-up call, and cities across the nation should also take heed.

Police brutality and coercive interrogations are a nasty plague that can be fixed. But the entire justice system and standard interrogation techniques need to change.

Enhanced interrogation techniques approved by George W. Bush’s administration when he was still in office are similar to police tactics used in the interrogation room. They include, but are not limited to, extended periods of questioning that physically and emotionally exhaust the interrogator’s subject, physical abuse and psychological tactics.

The fact remains that the current method of police interrogation is ineffective. This is because “the interrogation process is …  fraudulent because suspects rarely get the attractive deal that detectives imply that they will get from self incrimination,” according to the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law’s report on interrogation tactics.

Hmm … offering deals and then going back on them? Seems to be an ongoing trend in Chicago, not just with the police department, but with Emanuel as well.

Not the greatest example to be setting, Mayor. I adore your aggressive tactics and find your past ballet education endearing, although I’d rather you stick to your word with Chicagoans. But I digress.

Police interrogation is no doubt an important tool for investigators but only when done correctly. If carried out properly, it is “an unmitigated social benefit that renders enormously important outcomes,” according to the same Ohio State report.

It should be common sense that the CPD begin exploring different techniques, considering the FBI has recommended that the interrogator use, “a combination of interpersonal, cognitive and emotional strategies to extract the information needed. If done correctly, this approach works quickly and effectively.”

In other words, treat the subject like a human being instead of an object of information.