Roster of Exonerations Shows the Particular Vulnerability of Juveniles Under Questioning

Carl Williams was 17 years old when Cook County police arrested him in January of 1994. Williams was charged with two counts of murder and one count of sexual assault. He confessed to the crime after a police interrogation and along with four co-defendants, Williams was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 1996. Now, 18 years later, Williams, who claims he is innocent, has been granted an evidentiary hearing and a re-sentencing by the 1st District Appellate Court of Illinois. “The case of the wrong Carl” is a prime example of change in the way Illinois judges view confessions, said Steven Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions – and co-founder of the Center on Wrong Convictions of Youth – at the Northwestern University School of Law. The Cook County justice system interrogates its juveniles as they do its adults.  And the center is quite certain that of the 100-plus juveniles currently serving life without parole sentences in the state, many of their convictions were based on false confessions.

Juvenile Offenders in Limbo under Outdated State Laws

More than two years after U.S. Supreme Court decisions started throwing out mandatory death and life sentences for minors, judges in Washington, Illinois and dozens of other states still lack guidance on what to do with juveniles past and present convicted of murder and some other serious felonies. “Courts are uncomfortable in trying to figure out what ‘life’ means in terms of years,” said Kimberly Ambrose, senior law lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law. She represented Guadalupe Solis-Diaz at the state’s Court of Appeals, arguing against a 92-year sentence he’s serving for six counts of first-degree assault and other charges for his role in a drive-by shooting. The then 16-year-old Solis-Diaz fired into a crowd in Centralia, Wash., in 2007, though did not injure his target or anyone else. It’s not clear in Washington if those 92 years are equivalent to what the U.S. Supreme Court calls “life” sentences.

Illinois Supreme Court Ruling Hailed As Win for Juveniles

The Illinois Supreme Court has shot down a controversial practice that was the norm in the state’s juvenile courts for years, despite outcry that minors were not being treated fairly under state laws meant to protect their status as juveniles. The court found that a lawyer’s second role as a guardian ad litem—an advocate for minors in court proceedings who pledges to act in the child’s “best interest”—may have inhibited him from providing his client with a zealous defense in a sexual abuse case. Austin M.’s conviction was overturned by the court, which cited that a per se, or inherent, conflict of interest occurred when his lawyer decided to act as a guardian ad litem and declared that he was seeking the truth, “the same as the court and the same as the prosecutor.”

Some legal experts hailed the decision saying it was clear-cut under the due process clause and legal precedents in juvenile delinquency cases. “Lawyers have a duty of confidentiality, a loyalty to their client that is compromised when they wear two hats; to begin to think of [themselves] as a ‘best interest’ lawyer,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. Lawyers are either appointed by the court as guardians ad litem for their juvenile clients or choose to identify themselves as such, usually when the defendant’s parents do not appear during trials.

Two Cities, Two Approaches to Gun Control

By Yunjiao Amy Li and Eric Ferkenhoff
Headlines from Dallas and Chicago over the past few days seem to underscore that the debate over gun rights, following the Trayvon Martin killing, is far from settled. In Dallas, there was this: A gun range in nearby Lewisville is prepping a program to host children’s parties for those as young as 8 to enjoy cake, ice cream and some shooting. It’s a very “Texas” thing to do, they say, and Eagle Gun Range is just an example of the state’s proud stance on gun rights. According to Jame Kunke, the tourism director for city of Lewisville, a tiny town west of Dallas, locals have largely endorsed the opening of Eagle Gun Range. “Maybe it’s because this is Texas, but the idea of gun ownership goes back a long time and there’s a high demand,” said Kunke, 45.