When detectives questioned Trevon Yates inside a St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department interrogation room in August 2013 for an armed robbery in Belleville, he insisted he didn’t rob anyone.
Video of the two-hour interrogation shows the East St. Louis teen repeatedly professing his innocence, begging for his mother and praying to God.
“I did not rob nobody,” Yates pleaded to a detective in the video. “I swear to God. I’m being honest with you, sir. I’m being so, so honest. I try to do right. I’m going to school to get my GED.”
St. Clair County Board members on Monday approved a $900,000 settlement with Yates, who alleged in a federal lawsuit that the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department violated his civil rights. In the suit, filed last year, he argued that sheriff’s detectives coerced him into giving a false confession to a robbery.
The county denies doing anything wrong.
The detective in the interrogation showed Yates a stack of paperwork and told Yates he had evidence pointing to his guilt, including phone records. But Yates persisted in his innocence.
“I’m being honest, sir. I swear to God,” Yates told the detective.
At one point in the video, the detective asked the boy, “I’m not mistreating you, right?”
Yates was charged with a Class X felony, but it was was later dropped.
Yates was arrested Aug. 28, 2013, by deputies and questioned in connection with a robbery of a couple who were lured to a parking lot in Belleville, where they expected to meet someone who had advertised an iPhone for sale on Craigslist.
It was initially alleged Yates pistol-whipped the female with the butt-end of a gun and took cash. Though Yates was 17, he was considered an adult under Illinois law because of the nature of the crime.
Yates, who has diminished cognitive ability, was charged with armed robbery and spent nine months in jail before the charges were eventually dismissed.
It was more of a perfect storm, where you have an individual who was charged, the charges were dismissed, and you have an opinion he had mental deficiencies that would have prevented him from knowingly waiving Miranda (rights).
Tom Ysursa, attorney for St. Clair County
Yates was represented by Roderick and Solange MacArthur Juvenile Justice Center, a non-profit public interest law firm based at Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic in Chicago.
“What happened to Trevon Yates is appalling,” said Locke Bowman, executive director of the juvenile justice center. “In this case, police officers were less interested in solving a crime than they were in charging someone — anyone — with a crime.”
According to the juvenile justice center, the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office received a tip a youth named “Trayvon” had been involved in the armed robbery. Sheriff’s department personnel then picked up Yates for questioning — even though he didn’t match the physical description offered by the tipster. Soon afterward, the tipster told officers Yates was not involved.
Sheriff’s investigators repeatedly told Yates they knew he was involved in the robbery and implied he could avoid incarceration by confessing, the juvenile justice center added.
Yates allegedly confessed to the crime, but a clinical psychologist offered an opinion that Yates had a low IQ and lacked the mental capacity to knowingly waive his Miranda rights.
Yates also was represented by Alexa Van Brunt and Sheila A. Bedi, attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center; Laura Nirider, an attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at the Bluhm Legal Clinic; and Jim Ellis, an attorney in Belleville.
“There is no excuse for the coercive interrogation techniques used by county officers sworn to uphold the law,” Nirider said. “The amount of emotional distress intentionally inflicted on this child is shocking. He begged for his mother 35 times, threatened to kill himself and was sent to spend months in jail.
What happened to Trevon Yates is appalling. In this case, police officers were less interested in solving a crime than they were in charging someone — anyone — with a crime.
Locke Bowman, executive director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Juvenile Justice Center
The St. Clair County state’s attorney’s office dismissed the charges against Yates.
The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office referred questions to attorney Tom Ysursa, who represented the county in the case.
“The primary evidence was the confession,” Ysursa said. “If the confession wasn’t going to be allowed, you probably weren’t going to have a successful prosecution.”
Ysursa said insurance will pick up about 90 percent of the settlement, in which St. Clair County denied any wrongdoing.
“We dispute their characterization of it, but that’s what happens when we have lawsuits,” Ysursa said.
Sheriff’s personnel conducted their investigation, which led them to Yates, Ysursa said. He added the case went to the grand jury, which returned a true bill, which is a formal charge.
He points out the sheriff’s office hasn’t had a Craigslist armed robbery in that area since this incident.
Yates attended GED classes at SWIC at the time of the incident, Ysursa said.
Ysursa said investigators did nothing improper in picking up and questioning Yates.
“The clinical psychologist also testified there ... was no obvious signs this kid had any deficiencies to be able to understand what he was saying,” Ysursa said.
“It was more of a perfect storm, where you have an individual who was charged, the charges were dismissed, and you have an opinion he had mental deficiencies that would have prevented him from knowingly waiving Miranda (rights),” he added.