After 15 Years In Prison, Hope For Chicagoans

Nov 23, 2011
Originally published on November 23, 2011 10:56 am
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I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, award-winning chef Jose Andre stops by to share his Thanksgiving favorites, but first we take a look at crime and punishment in the United States. Since 2000, DNA evidence has helped exonerate 213 individuals convicted of crimes. Since the first DNA exoneration in 1989, seventeen people had their convictions overturned after serving time on death row. That's according to the Innocence Project, an organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions.

Last week a judge threw out the convictions of four men who were found guilty of a 1994 rape and murder in Chicago. The judge says new DNA evidence strongly shows their innocence and in fact connects another man with that crime. We wanted to talk more about this case and others like it, so we are joined now by Terrill Swift. He spent 15 years behind bars for that 1994 murder and rape and was on parole when his conviction was overturned. We are also joined by Laura Washington, a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, and she has written on this case and similar cases in the Chicago area. Welcome, both of you.

LAURA WASHINGTON: Hi Tony, how you doing?

COX: I'm doing fine, thank you very much. Terrill, I want to begin with you. You have claimed that your confession was coerced. How was it coerced?

TERRILL SWIFT: Back in 1995, when I was arrested for this case, I was taken into the police department and what I know now was leading questions is what, is how, you know, it all came about as far as the coerced confession, and I was threatened with life in prison or 100 years in prison if I didn't agree with the coerced statement, and due to my lack of knowledge and my being naïve, I signed the confession under the pretense that I was going to go home later on that night, but it didn't work that way.

COX: Was there any physical intimidation?

SWIFT: No, just physiological intimidation, mental. I mean I was a kid. Seventeen, I was vulnerable, I didn't know. I had that perception that the police were there to help, and in my case I feel like they took advantage of me being a youth and being naive.

COX: When they were questioning you, you did not have council present?


COX: We should mention that we contacted the Chicago Police Department for a statement on this case but did not receive an immediate response. Terrell, one more thing before we bring Laura Washington into the conversation. You were convicted once as we know. How confident are you now that you'll be found not guilty if a new trial is held?

SWIFT: I am 1,000 percent confident that I will be found not guilty because I'm innocent.

COX: What makes you so confident?

SWIFT: I'm innocent. I've been asserting my innocence since 1995. I didn't just start in 2010. I've been stating this during trial. Even after I was convicted, I stated it again. When I had stated to the judge and to the - this woman's family (unintelligible) I'm innocent. It was unfortunate that I had to pay for something, but I'm an innocent guy. I am innocent and I'm going to continue to fight until I have nothing left.

COX: Laura, prosecutors have the option to retry this case. Why haven't they dropped the charges yet?

WASHINGTON: That is a mystery I think to just about everyone involved in the case. I think that they will tell you that they feel that the evidence shows in some ways that Terrell and his co-defendants had something to do with this case. You know, I think part of it is there's certainly a very strong tendency by prosecutors to disbelieve defendants. Part of it is because they've, you know, had to deal with so many of these cases in the past, I think that they've become sort of inured to the truth in many ways.

And I think they fall for the argument and for the assumptions that many people have when they hear that someone confessed to a crime. So why would you - even if you're a young 17-year-old man, as Terrill was - why would you confess to something that you didn't do? That's a powerful argument against innocence, and I think they're buying into it. The problem is that, as we've seen over and over again in this country and particularly in Illinois, there have been many wrongful convictions that involve people who have been coerced as he has been, who've been, worse, tortured and have been forced to basically implicate themselves in horrible things that they didn't have anything to do with, and sort of in the name of justice.

COX: I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are just joining us, we are talking about overturned convictions based on DNA evidence and we are speaking with Terrill Swift, who's conviction in a 1994 rape and murder was recently overturned. We are also joined by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington. Laura, if the judge indicated at the time that Terrell's conviction was overturned that there was new DNA evidence that pointed to another suspect, is that not enough for the prosecution's office to act on?

WASHINGTON: That remains to be seen. There's a hearing coming up later this month where the prosecution will have the opportunity to decline to further prosecute, but up to this point they believe that the DNA evidence is just what they've told me, is DNA evidence is just one piece. There's the confessions, there's other what they call circumstantial evidence, and that - I think what they have argued in this case is that these young men were involved with the crime in some way. Maybe they weren't the only perpetrators.

Maybe this gentleman who has been fingered now with the DNA - is deceased - maybe he was involved but there - they have argued up to this point that they don't believe that the other young men were involved - were not involved. I think, though, they're going to do the right thing. I think the DNA evidence is irrefutable and that is the strongest evidence in this case, you know, other than the confessions, which appear to have been coerced.

So, I think in the end they'll realize, even if they don't aren't completely 100 percent convinced, they'll realize that it would be a tremendous cost to taxpayers, to Terrill, and to his co-defendants to retry this case at this point.

COX: Terrell, what does the conviction being overturned now mean, especially given the fact that you have already been paroled?

SWIFT: It gives me a - I'm able to breathe a little. Because I was on parole, I was technically released. It was worse at times being out here because when you're labeled as a sex offender, I mean that label hurted me more than the 15 years in prison I did, and that's why we fought so (unintelligible) hard. I mean, it was painful.

COX: You mentioned the family, and I want to come back to that. What about them? The families of the victims you were convicted of killing. Given this new information, has there been any contact between you and them and do you think there should be?

SWIFT: No, given the case is still - it's still a case right now, so I'm not at liberty to speak with Miss Glover's family. However, in the future I will be more than willing to sit down and speak with any one of her family members and - you know what I mean? Like I says, we're pretty much - we share similar pains. They lost a mother, a daughter. I mean, my heart goes out to them.

However, I didn't - we didn't do this and we're going to continue to fight and, you know, hopefully they'll understand that as well. When you're innocent you're going to keep on fighting, and that's what we're doing.

COX: We're speaking with Terrill Swift, who's conviction in a 1994 rape and murder was recently overturned. Also, we are joined by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin.

Laura, two weeks before Terrill's conviction was overturned, a judge exonerated five men in a similar case in Cook County. Why are we seeing so many of these situations, especially, it seems, in the greater Chicago area?

WASHINGTON: Well, there's a long history and pattern at the police department of wrongful prosecutions and they often start with the kind of experience Terrill had, forced confessions, torture. There were similar activities involved in the case in Dixmoor that you mentioned.

There are a number of men who've been let off death row in the last several years in Illinois who were, in fact, tortured by Chicago police officers. So I think that there's a really big problem in the police department and I think that the department's aware of it and most of the officers who were involved in these cases over the year are no longer on the force, thank God.

But I think that's part of it. I also think that there's just this bias and perception that young black men are proven guilty before they have a chance to defend themselves. There's this perception that you must have done something wrong. I think that's what you hear a lot from folks who don't really follow these things closely and don't really understand the criminal justice system and, in many ways, how it's warped against defendants like Terrill.

COX: We should mention once again, I think, that we did contact the Chicago Police Department for a statement on Terrill's case, but we have not received a response that we could bring to you.

Terrill, what is important to you now? And what do you plan to do next with your life?

SWIFT: I'm going to continue to get out here and be an advocate for the wrongfully convicted. I want to get out here and speak with the youth. I guess my mission statement will be - I'm going to try and prevent another youth from experiencing what I experienced and to prevent another family from experiencing what my family went through. I don't want to see that.

I was torn away from my mother. I was abducted in 1995 away from my family and I was released, but I was still - it takes a while to get yourself, I guess, in a sense, reprogrammed to being out here in the world and that was lost time. I mean, I don't want to see anyone else go through what me and my family had to go through.

COX: Do you feel you're owed something?

SWIFT: I just want my life. You don't owe me an apology. Just give me my life back. That's all.

COX: You said they don't owe you? You don't feel you're owed an apology?

SWIFT: No. They don't owe me. No. I don't want it. I just want my life. When they dropped the charges, that's all the apologies I need.

COX: Are you scared that - and scared, perhaps, is not the right word. Are you worried that the charges will not be dropped eventually?

SWIFT: Absolutely not. I'm not worried about it. I'm not going - if they do not want to drop the charges, I'm not worried about a trial. I'm standing on the truth and they say truth doesn't need any support. So I'm OK with that.

COX: And the potential thought of returning to prison, if that were something that were on the table, doesn't concern you?

SWIFT: No. Absolutely not.

COX: Terrill Swift was convicted in a 1994 murder and rape on Chicago's South Side. His conviction was recently overturned with DNA evidence that implicated another man. Laura Washington is a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. They both joined us from member state WBEZ in Chicago.

Thank you both very much.

WASHINGTON: A pleasure.

SWIFT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.