Metro-East News

Madison County public defender supports bill requiring lawyers for juveniles during interrogations

John Rekowski
John Rekowski

A lawyer would have to be present when police question juveniles younger than 15 in murder or sex offense investigations under a measure Illinois lawmakers are considering that seeks to eliminate false confessions.

Illinois currently mandates legal representation for children younger than 13 in those cases, even if they’re not the targets of the criminal probe. However, two Democratic legislators sponsoring the new bill — Senate Bill 2370 — say 14- and 15-year-olds should receive legal protection, too.

The bill would also require that when police question anyone younger than 18 about a murder or sex crime, they must read a simplified Miranda warning explaining the person’s right to stay silent and have legal counsel. It also would guarantee that interrogations of all juveniles be videotaped in misdemeanor and felony cases.

As of Tuesday, the bill has been placed on the schedule for a second reading in the House. Earlier this month, it was unanimously approved with a vote of 56-0 in the Senate, including votes from metro-east senators James Clayborne, Bill Haine, Dave Luechtefeld and Kyle McCarter.

To Madison County Public Defender John Rekowski, Senate Bill 2370 is an “important bill that serves an important purpose.”

“What we know about juveniles — until age 18 to 21, or 22 — the minds of juveniles are different from adults. They haven’t fully matured, they haven’t fully developed,” Rekowski said. “Juveniles need to have more protection in terms of being sure that they aren’t being taken advantage of by the court system.”

Juveniles need to have more protection in terms of being sure that they aren’t being taken advantage of by the court system.

John Rekowski, Madison County public defender

Rekowski said getting juvenile defendants legal protection in the early stages of an investigation would ensure a “level playing field” between the defense and the state.

In an Alton case, five teens were arrested after authorities believed they were responsible for beating a homeless man to death in a cemetery in 1990. The five were taken into custody when they were found driving the victim’s truck. Four falsely confessed to police, Rekowski said. An investigation by Rekowski's office showed that the boys were not guilty.

Rekowski also noted the Dustan Pennington case, where the 16-year-old boy signed a written confession to the murder of a female hotel clerk in East Alton. Pennington was reportedly threatened with life imprisonment during a 13-hour interrogation by police. Rekowski said the boy was later acquitted by a jury. The case was cited in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal in 2001.

“Getting somebody in who can stand for them (juveniles) and advise them and see to it that they aren’t being taken advantage of is obviously a critical thing,” Rekowski said.

Tim Curry, director of training and technical assistance at the National Juvenile Defender Center, said most children don't know to invoke their rights to an attorney

“It’s commonplace for Miranda rights to be handed over to a child without assessing if the child understands them,” Curry said, adding that it’s also common for officers to violate procedures and use ultimatums causing children to plead guilty without a case going to trial.

Juvenile interrogations were a focus of the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” which showed Brendan Dassey, without a lawyer present, confessing to police about his involvement in the 2005 slaying of a woman whose remains were found near his uncle Steven Avery’s trailer. Both Dassey, who was 16 at the time of the crime, and Avery, who had previously spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, were convicted separately of murder and sentenced to life terms. Dassey’s first shot at parole will come in 2048.

“Children are vulnerable in the interrogation room and the result can be false confessions,” said Laura Nirider, Dassey's defense lawyer and co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.

The Senate sponsor of the Illinois proposal initially tried to impose the attorney requirement for juveniles younger than 17 but lowered it to 15 amid concerns from local prosecutors that making it higher could hamper the investigation of gang members, said Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno.

At least 33 states give juveniles access to a parent or an attorney at some point during an investigation and at least 17 have Miranda wording intended for children, according to data by The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. In Wisconsin, where Dassey was interrogated, children are not required to have a lawyer or parent present. In New Mexico, the confession of a juvenile under 13 cannot be introduced in proceedings against him or her.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kaitlyn Schwers: 618-239-2526, @kaitlynschwers