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A teen wrongly charged in a shooting says police offered him fast food to get a confession

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/24/2022 Kim Bellware

Advocates for juvenile justice are calling for changes to the way police and schools handle arrests after the lawyer and family of an Illinois teenager said he was coerced into giving a false confession that led to him spending two days in lockup and charged with attempted murder.

The attorney for Martell Williams, 15, said Waukegan police interrogated the teen for hours without his parents or a lawyer present and tried to bribe Williams with food from McDonald’s in exchange for a confession; Williams caved after police promised he could go home once he confessed.

Williams said during a Monday news conference that he didn’t know why his principal pulled him from class at Waukegan High School on Friday morning, or why the two police officers waiting for him in the office immediately announced that he was under arrest.

“When they came and got me from school, I was very confused by the situation,” Williams said. “I was scared. I just wanted to go home.”

Kevin O’Connor, an attorney representing Williams, said that when officers coerced the teen’s wrongful confession, they had not yet told him that he was suspected in a shooting.

“They tried to bribe him with McDonald’s and saying, ‘Look, just tell us you were there … and we’ll get you home in 10 minutes,’ ” O’Connor said.

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Williams’s family knew he was not involved and soon found video evidence to prove as much: He was playing in a high school basketball game 20 miles away when the Feb. 4 shooting in Waukegan took place.

“If his sister hadn’t found this evidence, he would have been convicted,” O’Connor told The Washington Post on Wednesday, noting that Williams would not have had his first court date for at least a month.

O’Connor said Williams is receiving counseling, but the trauma of his arrest and detention is still fresh.

“You can see it in his eyes that he is reliving this and thinking of nightmares that, ‘Oh God, I could have spent 10 to 20 years in jail,’ ” O’Connor said.

Williams’s family isn’t alone in being alarmed by his arrest and wrongful charges; advocates in juvenile justice and wrongful convictions say stories like Williams’s still happen despite a recent Illinois law that was meant to prevent them.

In January, Illinois became the first state in the country to bar police from lying to minors during interrogations — including using tactics such as false promises of leniency if the accused person cooperates.

Illinois is first state in U.S. to ban police from lying to minors during interrogations

“The Waukegan Police Department, and Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, with whom they work closely, has a sordid past and an outrageous history of obtaining false confessions and standing by wrongful confessions,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project.

Kaeseberg cited wrongful convictions from Waukegan, including those of Angel Gonzalez, who was interrogated by Waukegan police in 1994, wrongfully convicted of rape and imprisoned for 20 years; and of Juan Rivera, who also spent two decades in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of wrongful convictions for rape and murder.

O’Connor, Williams’s attorney, said another “big failure” rests with Waukegan High School for pulling the teen from class in front of his teachers and his peers, and for letting police take him into custody before his parents could be reached.

Neither the Waukegan Police Department nor officials at the school responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

Waukegan interim police chief Keith Zupec confirmed in a statement Monday that the city was reviewing the case and that Williams is not a suspect.

A spokesperson for Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart (D) said the office dropped charges of aggravated battery and attempted murder against Williams and expunged his record once it was alerted to his alibi. Rinehart asked to meet personally with the family on Wednesday afternoon.

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The prosecutor’s office is reviewing video of Williams’s interrogation as part of an investigation of his arrest, said spokesperson Steve Spagnolo.

“Obviously, there’s concern of how this 15-year-old came to a confession and how there was a decision made by police that Mr. Williams was a suspect,” Spagnolo told The Post.

If Waukegan police are found to have violated the law against deceiving juveniles during interrogation, Spagnolo said, the matter would be considered an “administrative disciplinary issue” rather than a criminal offense.

Williams’s ordeal occurred 12 days after a 19-year-old clerk at a Waukegan Dollar General was shot in the face and survived. Police came to Williams’s high school on Feb. 16 and said people had identified him as being at the store during the incident; Williams said police mentioned an incident but never disclosed that it was a shooting.

O’Connor said police told the teen that “ ‘We know you were there’ ” and that Williams should “ ‘Just make it easier on yourself, we know it was self-defense, we know the other guy was the aggressor.’ ”

An officer at one point brought fast food for the teen, who had not eaten in hours. O’Connor said that Williams did not have an independent juvenile advocate with him — “No one to tell him, ‘They have to feed you no matter what’ ” — and that such a tactic is bribery when it targets minors.

“Even though handing him the McDonald’s doesn’t at first seem to be a bribe, in a kid’s mind, [police] are holding you, and if you don’t answer their questions, they’re not feeding you again,” he said. “ 'If you don’t tell us what we want to hear, you’re not going to eat again, and by taking the food, you now have to confess’ — that’s how Martell interpreted it.”

He said Williams never ate the food, but ultimately confessed when police said doing so would mean he could go home. Instead, he learned for the first time that he was facing serious charges.

Once in juvenile detention, Williams’s bewildered family scoured the Internet for video evidence that would show that he had been playing in a basketball game in Lincolnshire, Ill., about 15 miles away.

O’Connor lamented that by arresting Williams, police were not pursuing the actual shooter, who had not been identified by Wednesday.

O’Connor said the family will file a lawsuit if they don’t get immediate assurances of change from the school or police.

“I don’t want to have to file a civil suit. I want the school board, and police department to make changes immediately and have the DA hold their feet to the fire,” O’Connor said. “The civil system doesn’t fix this; this kid is suffering now.”

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