A Reporter at LargeFebruary 8, 1999 Issue
The Unprotected
By Alex Kotlowitz
January 31, 1999
The New Yorker, February 8, 1999 P. 42
A REPORTER AT LARGE about two young boys--Ricky and Isaac--who were charged with the murder of an 11-year-old girl named Ryan Harris. The writer describes a Chicago Police Department press conference, on Aug. 10, 1998, at which Sgt. Stan Zaborac announced the arrest of two black boys named Ricky and Isaac, aged 7 & 8, for the murder of an 11-year-old black girl named Ryan Harris. At a hearing that same day, Detective Allen Nathaniel, who had interrogated the boys with his partner, James Cassidy, testified that the boys had confessed to the murders. The press & the public reacted to the boys' arrest with horrified dismay; no children as young as Ricky and Isaac had ever been charged with murder. The juvenile court was founded in Chicago 100 years ago by Jane Addams on the premise that children require special treatment. But by the early '80s, the lenient juvenile laws appeared ill equipped to deal with the harsher crimes being committed by juveniles. By last year, every state in the county had made it easier to try violent juvenile offenders as adults. Ricky and Isaac were both arrested and prosecuted as if they were adult suspects, and their case shows just how deeply the special protections for children have eroded. Isaac is a good student, but Ricky struggles with his studies due to a cognitive disability. Psychiatrist Louis Kraus examined Ricky and believes that the boy could not have made a coherent confession to the police without being coached. The writer describes the police investigation of the murder. On Aug. 9th, both boys were brought down to the station to be interviewed about the murder; Det. Cassidy & Nathaniel interviewed Issac and Ricky alone, without the presence of their parents. That night, both boys were charged with murder. Since no recording was made of the interrogation, there's no way to know exactly what information the boys volunteered and what they parroted back to the detectives. The writer spoke with Thomas Grisso and several other psychologists about what goes on in a child's mind during an interrogation. The writer claims that what happened during the boys' interrogations is called cryptomnesia: where someone (the child) unwittingly claims to have generated an idea that was generated by someone else (the police). The writer describes the career of the legendary Chicago lawyer R. Eugene Pincham, who became one of Isaac's lawyers. Pincham claims that racism fueled the accusations against Ricky & Issac. At a court hearing 4 days after the arrest, Pincham's theatrics turned the hearing into a full-blown drama; Ricky & Isaac clearly had little understanding of the proceedings. The writer describes how chief state's attorney Cathy Ryan's view on the juvenile court changed from advocating automatic-transfer laws to being against them; she believes that the court has become too intent on punishment. When Ricky & Issac were arrested, Ryan indicated that she wouldn't have prosecuted them. Working behind the scenes, she convinced her colleagues to ask for a competency exam for the boys, in order to avert a messy trial. Meanwhile, Pincham received the police report and released portions of it to the press, which immediately began to decry the lax police procedures for interrogating young suspects. On September 4th, at a preliminary hearing, the prosecution informed the court that semen had been discovered on the panties of the victim, and that since the possibility of it having come from the accused was highly remote, they were dropping all charges against them. Three weeks later, the crime lab matched the DNA to a 29-year-old Englewood resident named Floyd Durr, an accused sexual offender. But the police haven't arrested Durr yet, nor have they ruled out Ricky & Isaac as suspects. Pincham is preparing to file a civil suit against the police, claiming that Ricky & Isaac were framed. Some believe that the police's flawed behavior with Ricky & Isaac is a product of a political climate in which police are urged to get tougher on younger criminals.
View Article
Published in the print edition of the February 8, 1999, issue.
Alex Kotlowitz, who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the author of four books, including, most recently, “An American Summer.”
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